Au revoir, Arafat?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Nov. 5 2004 11:21 AM

Au Revoir, Arafat?

Imagining a world without Yasser.

In a performance true to his long career of brinksmanship, Yasser Arafat is clinging to life at a hospital outside Paris—or in a coma, or perhaps already dead. Whatever the situation, politicians and commentators around the world have come face to face with the possibility that Arafat's viselike grip on Palestinian power may soon be no more. Arafat, who has spent nearly three years in virtual imprisonment at his Ramallah compound, was airlifted to France when Arab doctors could not diagnose the cause of a sudden collapse. A few early reports of his passing were quickly retracted, and a second wave of wire stories claimed he is "clinically dead"—a claim denied on Friday by the Palestinian envoy to France, who nevertheless acknowledged the obvious: that Arafat is "at a critical point between life and death."

Middle Eastern commentators considered Arafat's passing with varying degrees of hatred and respect. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post took the news as a victory, calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "the man who eliminated Yasser Arafat without killing him." The Israeli daily Haaretz explored the psychology of the Arafat-haters in another op-ed. According to the piece, those who hated him the most were quickest to show "covert awe of the enemy who is at his end." The article asked, "To whom will we give the job of the demonic villain? Nobody can fill the shoes of the person who played the role so perfectly." Another Haaretz columnist suggested that Arafat's death is a "major opportunity" for an Israeli peace initiative but that Israel must avoid "direct involvement in the coronation of Kings."

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The Arab press also gave heavy coverage to Arafat's medical drama. The Daily Star of Lebanon ran one gentle pre-elegy, noting that Arafat "was instrumental not only in keeping the cause alive but keeping it alive in the sympathies of the world." Another op-ed was less kind, reviewing Arafat's promising early years as a leader of exiled opposition and arguing that his leadership of the Palestinian Authority was "disastrous." The piece also took up the "great and fateful question" posed by Haaretz: "Not just who will follow him, but, in a larger sense, what?" The Star argues that Hamas and other hard-line Islamist groups will prevail over the Arafat-style nationalists.

Farther afield, Arafat's condition garnered headlines after the end of the tumultuous U.S. election news cycle. The Canadian Globe and Mail ran an interactive Arafat chronology on its Web site. The Australian daily the Age covered the growing row over whether Arafat will be buried in Jerusalem as he requested (an idea repugnant to Sharon and Israeli security forces) or in Gaza, where his father was born. Since Islam calls for bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death, the dispute could quickly escalate into crisis.

Meanwhile, international observers also wondered who will follow Arafat's singular act. A pro-Arafat Guardian comment noted that "the Palestinians have to be the ones to choose" new leadership. The piece stirred the pot on the subject of Arafat's medical condition: "[R]umors are swirling that Arafat was surreptitiously poisoned or infected [by Ariel Sharon]." An op-ed in the London Telegraph took issue with all the speculation and ran the headline "Despite Arafat, Iraq is still the key." The piece suggested that Arafat's passing may open new opportunities in the Palestinian situation, but that Iraq's problems are more pressing.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.