AT HIS DEATH, Yasser Arafat was viewed in Europe--always his most important constituency outside the Middle East--as the humble and pitiable leader of the dispossessed Palestinian people. But this image does little justice to the magnitude of his achievements. Arafat was the father of modern terrorism, and leaves behind a people ruined almost beyond salvation, a West divided against itself, and a global conflict that may last generations.
Nobody could have predicted how fitting his last days would be. The story that played out at Percy Hospital in Paris was the story of his life: a farce wrapped in lies and manipulations. His estranged wife Suha, a Palestinian Christian who lives luxuriously in Paris, suddenly appeared at his bedside to take control of all access, information, and, apparently, his life support. What happened next was pure Venezuelan soap opera. She refused to allow him to be taken off life support or declared dead unless the Palestinian Authority her husband had systematically looted guaranteed her pension. On Al Jazeera, she hysterically accused former and current Palestinian prime ministers Abbas and Qureia of conspiring to bury her husband alive. Privately she demanded that her maintenance be fixed according to the last payment she received from Arafat, a brazen act of extortion that won her a commitment of perhaps $20 million a year. No worries: If the PA remains true to Arafat's form, the agreement is worthless.
Probity, alas, was not high on the list of Yasser Arafat's qualities. While there is propaganda to the effect that he was Palestinian, there is no evidence he was anything but an Egyptian. In fact, there is little evidence that he ever set foot in the occupied territories until 1994. The story of his life until then bears retelling.
It begins in Cairo, where Arafat was born in 1929 and grew up to become an avid activist at the university. Enchanted by the struggle for Algerian independence, Arafat resolved to fight for the liberation of Palestine, and founded Fatah in the late 1950s. His inspiration was Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist-turned-hero of the Algerian war, who argued that a weak rebel force could defeat any colonial power by a simple stratagem: Goad the occupier into reprisals against civilians, and civilians will join the rebellion en masse. But for Fanon, as for his leftist intellectual patrons, violence was more than a strategy of liberation: It was a kind of exalted freedom in and of itself. "Violence," he wrote, "is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." Arafat embraced this ethic. As he showed throughout his career, it was violence itself that mattered--whatever the results.
Fanon's patrons weren't just café revolutionaries in Paris. The Soviets realized that the Fanon formula was good for starting all sorts of wars. With Moscow's encouragement, Fatah found a home in the camps of the Syrian army, where its fighters were trained and equipped. During the 1960s, endless cross-border incursions by the Fatah fedayeen provoked Israel into a pattern of escalating retaliations. As the Arab world became increasingly enraged, Moscow sensed the opportunity to seize control of the eastern Mediterranean at long last. It organized a military coalition of Arab states aimed at the final destruction of Israel.
Israel's offensive in the Six Day War of 1967 broke like a clap of thunder and shattered the Arab armies massing on her borders. It also brought under Israeli military control several million Palestinians who had been living since 1948 as permanent refugees in the Jordanian West Bank and Egyptian Gaza Strip. It was the first of many conflicts that would benefit Arafat politically, and bring nothing but misery to the Palestinians.
Immediately after the war, Fatah infiltrated the occupied territories to continue the struggle underground. And just as quickly, Arafat realized that there was a problem. The Israelis moved to consolidate their control of the occupied territories but sought to make the transformation palatable to the Palestinians by employing them in public works projects and opening job opportunities for them in Israel proper. They hoped to integrate the Palestinians of the occupied territories into a Greater Israel, securing natural, defensible borders, and offering them the same peaceful coexistence of Arab and Jew that already existed within Israel proper. It would have been easy at that point for the Palestinians to obtain a greater degree of liberty, self-rule, and affluence than they could possibly enjoy in Syria or Jordan.
For Arafat, this was unacceptable. Dispossession and humiliation made peaceful coexistence impossible. Violence was the only permissible strategy of liberation. So Arafat set about recreating in Palestine the Fanon approach in the Algerian war. As the FLN had done when confronted with the appeal of Albert Camus and similar voices of moderation, Arafat struck directly at the roots of peaceful coexistence. Fatah and its sister groups murdered Jews and Arabs alike, in the industrial zones that straddled the internal borders, at the markets where Palestinians and Jews sold their produce side by side, and at the bus terminals where hungry Palestinians waited to be taken to and from work in Israel. The hoped-for reprisals were not long in coming, and the Palestinians began to turn increasingly against Israel. Arafat succeeded in shattering any hope for peace.
But unlike the French in Algeria, Israel didn't have the option of extricating itself from the occupied territories. The pre-1967 borders were untenable, as Arafat himself had demonstrated. Israel depended for its life on a forward and aggressive defensive posture. Indeed, even that might not suffice: Israel was nearly destroyed a few years later in the 1973 Yom Kippur War--another Soviet-aided operation that would prove a boon to Arafat and a disaster for "his" people.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the Yom Kippur War, Arafat cemented his grip on the Palestine Liberation Organization, and gathered under its umbrella all the contending extremist Palestinian groups. Defeated on the battlefield, they made terrorism the unifying approach of their struggle, and it matured into the form in which we know it today: terror as both means and end.
But Arafat's strategy went far beyond spectacular murders of the innocent. He also realized that the most important dimension of his struggle was in the arena of international opinion, especially in Europe. This is where he apparently broke with his PLO comrade Abu Nidal, who saw no reason for interrupting the ecstasy of violence with lots of talk--least of all, talk with corrupt Western governments.
The myth of Arafat has it that he was unable to control the forces he had unleashed. But in a pattern that was forever to bedevil the "peace process," Arafat would publicly distance himself from terrorism, while claiming that Israeli policies made it impossible for him to control extremist tendencies. In fact, had he tried to control those tendencies, he would have succeeded or he would have been murdered. In either case, indefinite coexistence with "rival" factions would have been impossible. The very fact of his political longevity gives the lie to Arafat's contrived image of noble weakness. He survived in a political landscape of thugs and murderers because they all knew that he was one of them, and that he was the boss. A weak man would not have survived.
Yet in order to succeed, he had to contrive every appearance of weakness. There, he enjoyed both talent and technique: The Soviets who trained him as a terrorist also trained him as a propagandist. He moved fast to use the channels they opened up for him among the trade unions, universities, and political parties of Europe. Under his direction, the PLO deployed a massive "grass-roots" propaganda operation there, culminating in the hero's welcome he received when--preposterously comparing himself to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln--he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1974.
His greatest propaganda victory was on Europe's university campuses, where Fatah replaced the Viet Cong as the most popular liberation movement. The effect on the left was amazing. In just one generation, they went from championing the socialist utopia of Israel's kibbutzim to regarding Israel as an archetype of imperial colonialism and capitalist oppression. Against nearly insurmountable obstacles of plain fact, Arafat succeeded in creating the image that Israel was the racist aggressor. This image, the dominant view in Europe today, has always been a fantasy. And the consequences were to prove historic: By embracing Arafat as the hero of a liberation movement, the Europeans legitimized his methods. Arafat tapped into latent anti-Semitism, which permitted the Europeans to view anti-Israeli terrorism as somehow different from terrorism generally. But the terrorists, as we know, make no such distinctions.
It is crucial to grasp that for all the suffering Arafat brought to Israel, his "leadership" brought even greater suffering to the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Making Israel pay in blood for every extension of freedom to the Palestinians, Arafat stuck doggedly to the Fanon formula. But he never succeeded in his aim of leading a war of liberation. His strategy of unleashing the power of the people by goading Israel into reprisals against civilians indeed caused civilian casualties--but that's all it produced. In the meantime, any Palestinians who still sought peaceful coexistence with Israel were either sidelined or murdered.
As the world holds its breath to see who--and what--will succeed Arafat, we should consider how little the Palestinian people will owe to him if their lot should improve. If, on the other hand, another generation of Palestinians seeks redemption through hatred and senseless violence, Arafat will deserve all the credit. He designed a political structure to produce chaos and conflict, ostensibly to liberate the people. In fact, it proved capable of producing only chaos and conflict--that, and a steady stream of guilt money from Europe, much of which Arafat diverted to himself and his cronies. The subsidies from Europe--and from the U.N. and U.S. taxpayers--to the Palestinian Authority amounted to billions of dollars over the past decade. His personal fortune at death was reliably estimated to exceed a billion dollars.
ARAFAT'S SEDUCTION of Europe bore its ultimate fruit not in the Middle East but in Stockholm, where in 1994 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. The prize proved a triumph of hope over experience. Armed now with unparalleled prestige, he led the world on an elusive chase for a final peace settlement with Israel that culminated at Camp David in July 2000. There Arafat, publicly all smiles, embarrassed the Clinton administration and pulled the rug out from under well-meaning Israelis by summarily rejecting the best peace deal the Palestinians would ever be offered. Arafat simply couldn't abide an end to the conflict. Violence had been his life. It was the only tool of liberation that meant anything to him, and it was the only one he could honestly offer his people. Months later, on the thinnest of pretexts, he unleashed the second intifada. This was not a real war of liberation, at least not one Palestinians could win. It was terror for terror's sake. But appearances no longer mattered. For Arafat, violence had become eschatological.
If Arafat failed again in Palestine, he was still successful in supposedly enlightened quarters in the West. Al Qaeda's successful recruiting in the mosques and universities of Europe would have been unthinkable without the governing elites' generation-long love affair with Arafat, but al Qaeda, thankfully, has never absorbed the deep lesson of Arafat's career--that a nod in the direction of diplomacy and a friendly demeanor make terrorism more powerful, not less. Arafat so thoroughly hypnotized Europe's elites--blame the victims, blame the Jews--that it may take them a generation to recover. Fifty years after General de Gaulle understood that terrorism was a religion of murderers pure and simple, Jacques Chirac now shamelessly proclaims that the sources of terrorism are the Israeli and American occupation of Arab lands. And it's not calculated for advantage, like almost everything else he says. He actually believes it.
For Europe's leaders to so deeply confuse cause and effect bodes ill for the struggle against terrorism. In Europe little effort has been made to integrate large Muslim populations. Those populations are growing increasingly resentful of Western culture, and are easily attracted to the ideology of violence that is today freely taught in all the best universities of Europe. That Europe became a breeding ground for terrorists--that the leaders of the 9/11 cells were the product of European universities--this also is Yasser Arafat's legacy, and the legacy endures.
From fertile incubation in Europe to the furthest reaches of the Muslim world, a new liberation theology has emerged. Arafat taught an entire generation of Muslims that Terrorism is Power. What might be the antidote for that poisonous idea? After 50 years of poisoning the world--and most of all his own people--Arafat left the stage last week, a depressing symbol of modern-day Palestine. The people he left behind will find true liberation only if they can transcend the senseless violence that he falsely insisted was their only hope.
Mario Loyola is an occasional contributor to The Weekly Standard.