Pain and Hope in the West Bank

Arafat's death marks a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East

The meaning of Yasir Arafat’s death to the Palestinians was best witnessed at his burial Friday in the West Bank. Heaving, chaotic throngs of mourners seemingly devoured Arafat’s flag-draped coffin, returning full-circle the leader who had emerged from their midst to raise and carry the Palestinian flag of resistance and nationalist aspiration for forty years. Working ceaselessly, often in exile from his native land, Arafat stubbornly represented his people and their cause and won them a hard-fought war for international legitimacy and recognition. Today the Palestinian national cause stands as a pressing issue in the minds of world leaders, diplomats, and ordinary people the world over due in a significant part to Arafat’s tireless advocacy and dedication.

His career, from violent revolutionary to Nobel Peace laureate and finally to marginalized president of the Palestinian Authority, was many things to different people. But all can attest to the fact that he, for so long, was at the center of what has sometimes seemed an impossibly thorny and all-consuming conflict. To some he was emblematic of that conflict: fiery, volatile and eternal. Quite literally to others, with his trademark headscarf and unflagging pursuit of a homeland for his people, he was the emblem itself. No matter one’s views of the man, his passing undeniably marks a new chapter in the history of the Middle East.

But both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the dream of a Palestinian state will survive—no doubt dependent in large part upon how events unfold in the coming months. The Palestinians must recognize that the aspiration for a sovereign state is, and has always been, theirs and not Arafat’s alone—they now have a unique opportunity to determine its future course and a special responsibility to pursue a peaceful settlement with Israel. With presidential elections less than two months away, the Palestinians have the chance to elect a new leadership, which will steer the Palestinians toward the dream of a free and democratic Palestine standing side by side with a peaceful Israel. Extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad must be thwarted; they must be prevented from carrying Palestinian aspirations down the road toward greater violence and hatred. This is the Palestinians’ first and most significant trial after the passing of their national patriarch, and they must be thoughtful and pragmatic in their course of action.

Right or wrong, Arafat has long been derided by Israelis and Americans as the main obstacle to peace in th region, but critics can no longer rely on him as the all-too easy scapegoat for failed peace initiatives. It is time to look ahead toward the promise of peace instead of repeatedly rehashing the battles of the past. The U.S. and Israel, along with a newly elected Palestinian leadership, must press forward with the long-abandoned peace process with renewed engagement and spirit of cooperation. For its part, Israel must recognize and support the upcoming Palestinian elections in order to advance the new leadership’s legitimacy. Furthermore, goodwill measures like settlement withdrawals and the demilitarization of population centers will help impart confidence in the new Palestinian leadership. At this crucial juncture, both Israelis and Palestinians stand to gain immensely from taking a more cooperative stance.

The new Palestinian government, with Israeli and American support, should also move toward greater democratic freedoms and transparency, increased execution of the rule of law and an improved, responsive security apparatus that will crack down on militant groups that threaten the peace process. The Palestinians, who have long chafed under the twin pressures of Israeli occupation and the corrupt Palestinian Authority, now deserve a new deal from both Israel and their own leaders to secure a peaceful and prosperous future in a state of their own.