After the eruption of the second intifada, Arafat chose to ride the violence rather than quelling Palestinian terror. He sensed the mounting Palestinian discontent with Israeli settlement-building, the pace of Oslo, and the corruption of his outsider claque. As the Islamists of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad turned to increasingly frequent suicide bombings, radicalized but secular nationalists linked to Fatah—including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—followed suit. It's hard to find evidence that Arafat did much to stop them. That onslaught eviscerated Israel's Labor Party, Arafat's erstwhile Oslo partner and best hope for a peace in the near term, and left Arafat alone with his old antagonist, Sharon. Arafat was a genius at playing to his own public opinion, but he was wretched at dealing with Israel's, even at the height of the peace process. Unfortunately for him, the Israelis held the land he wanted.
A long life, then, but not a fulfilled one. No Palestinian leader of his era was more likely to be able to make lasting and historic accommodations with the harsh reality of Israel's existence and power. Abbas or some other potential successors might be more interested in a deal, but these less-than-mythic figures would be much harder pressed to sell a wrenching deal to their people. But if Arafat was a Palestinian Nixon, capable of going to China, he was never entirely sure he wanted to make the trip. Yitzhak Rabin was willing to die facing down his own rejectionists; Arafat was not. He preferred to let natural causes take him. In a sense, Arafat's legacy is simple: He lived for a Palestinian state. If he'd been a different type of leader, he could have died in one.
Warren Bass is a senior editor at the Washington Post's "Book World" section and the author ofSupport Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.