Much as his political ascent gave shape to the contemporary Palestinian landscape, Yasser Arafat’s death will fundamentally transform it. Arafat was unique, and uniquely suited to his people’s condition following the 1948 war: defeated, dispossessed, and dispersed, without a state to defend them, a territory to hold them, or a political strategy to unite them. Palestinians were divided by family, class, and clan, scattered throughout the region and beyond, exploited by the competing purposes of many and prey to the ambitions of all. By dint of his history and personality, charisma and guile, cajoling and bullying, luck and sheer perseverance, Arafat came to represent them equally and to emerge as the face of the Palestinian people, to them and to the world.
Arafat’s paramount goal was national unity, without which he believed nothing could be achieved. He was the bridge between Palestinians in the Diaspora and those on the inside, those who were dispossessed in 1948 and those who were occupied in 1967, West Bankers and Gazans, young and old, rich and poor, swindlers and honest toilers, modernists and traditionalists, militarists and pacifists, Islamists and secularists. He was national leader, tribesman, family elder, employer, Samaritan, head of a secular-nationalist movement, and deeply devout all at once, aspiring to be the preeminent embodiment of each of these disparate groups, even when they held opposing views. His style was often criticized and disparaged but his preeminent position was seldom questioned. No Palestinian leader is likely to reproduce his kind of politics, almost certainly not under conditions of occupation, and unquestionably not right now.
The man chosen to succeed him is in most ways different but in one critical respect the same. Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a rarity: a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But he is so in radically dissimilar fashion. Where Arafat attained national status by identifying with and belonging to every single constituency and factional interest, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. Arafat immersed himself in local politics; Abu Mazen floats above it, his service being to the national movement as a whole. The Old Man, with inexhaustible bravado, ruled through an overwhelming and overpowering rhetorical and physical presence. Unassuming and understated, a man of few words but many deeds, the new president has built a career running from the limelight. He was born in what is now Israel in 1935 and left in 1948. A founding member of Fatah, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, an adviser to Arafat, and principal behind-the-scenes negotiator from the Madrid Conference in 1991 to the Oslo Accords in 1993, he was often influential, but seldom visible. Until now, his one brush with public office was his short-lived tenure as prime minister in 2003. With Arafat’s passing, the politics of weightiness are over; enter the politics of the light touch.
Arafat inhabited a Borgesian world where a thing and its opposite could cohabit at the same point in space and time; where what mattered was the impact of …