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By Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times.

From the International Herald Tribune, November 15, 2004. Reprinted in the Asahi Weekly, November 28, 2004.

History Won't Be Kind to Arafat

The day after Yasser Arafat died, USA Today carrier a big, bold headline that caught my eye. It said, "Arafat Dies, Leaves Void."

All I could think of when reading that headline was its double meaning. Arafat left a void of leadership, with no formal successor. But he also left a void of achievement. And it is that second void that really matters, considering that he led the Palestinian movement for some 40 years.

You will pardon me if I don't join the insipid chorus about how Arafat's great achievement was that he represented the "aspirations" of the Palestinian people and, through terrorism and resistance, put the Palestinian cause on the world map.

Excuse me, but Arafat put the Palestinian cause on the world map in 1974, when he was invited to address the U.N. General Assembly. What did he do with all that attention? Very little. There is a message in his life and legacy for every world leader: If all you do is express the aspirations, but never produce the reality, then history will judge you very harshly. And any honest history of Arafat will judge him on his voids, not his visions.

Will we now see the emergence of a Palestinian leadership -- a broad coalition from Hamas to Fatah -- ready to take the collective decision to really reconcile with the Jews that Arafat was not ready to make on his own?

Will Arab leaders, such as Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who put forth a peace plan, be ready to really help the Palestinians make the tough decisions by giving them Arab cover? Or will we simply have another generation of expressive politics by Arab leaders, who love the Palestinian cause but not the Palestinian people?

Ariel Sharon seems to have already started to learn some of the lessons of Arafat's life. Sharon was asked recently what made him change his mind, and risk his own life and political career, to undertake a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza after so many years opposing such a move. His answer: There were things he could see "from here" that he couldn't see "from there."

In other words, sitting in the prime minister's chair, he could suddenly see the long-term interests of the Israeli people in a different way.

"Sharon has started to give up his popularity among his own constituency, because he realizes that the welfare of the Israeli people, as a whole, requires decisions that are unpopular but unavoidable," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. But Sharon cannot stop just with Gaza. He's got a lot more popularity to give up with his old constituency if we're going to see a deal on the West Bank.

Finally, what about U.S. President George W. Bush? When it comes to the Arab-Israeli question, he's had a little bit of the Arafat disease himself. He's given some of the best speeches of any president on the Arab-Israel issue and delivered some of the most pathetic diplomacy I have ever seen.

This divide reflects the paralyzing split in his administration between those who understand that America will never win the war of ideas in the Middle East without working seriously on the most emotional issue in Arab political life -- the Palestinian question -- and those, like the vice president and secretary of defense, who think the whole issue is overrated. The first group are right, the second are wrong. The president needs to chose.

Arafat preferred to die, beloved by all his people, in a Paris military hospital -- rather than sacrifice his popularity and maybe his life so that the majority of his people could live and die at home. Will Sharon, Bush and the Arab and Palestinian leaders now follow his model and play to the crowds, or play to history?

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