Residents dispute leader's world role

The death of Yasser Arafat expectedly echoed across borders.

Even in New Hampshire, geographical distance hardly prevented those with an interest in the Middle East from pondering the fate of Palestinian-Israeli relations after the passing of the unifying – and for many others, polarizing – Arab leader.

“Regardless of whether you are in agreement or disagreement with Arafat’s political approach, Arafat is a symbol of the Palestinian struggle,” Nabil Migalli, chairman of the local Arab American Forum, said Thursday.

Many Palestinians held Arafat in high regard, especially with him holed-up for the last two years in a compound by the Israeli army. For Palestinians, he served as an iconic image of their long struggle for statehood, standing as a defiant leader until the end, even though his international reputation and clout had recently faded.

But while mostly admired by his people, Arafat rankled Israelis, who condemned him for resorting to terrorism to achieve his means.

“He never accepted the creation of Israel from the get go,” said Adam Solender, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Manchester. Arafat did publicly recognize Israel in 1988 after long having called for its destruction.

Solender disagrees with the label of Arafat as statesman. “He was inherently a terrorist,” he said.

Palestinians, conversely, viewed Arafat as other things: a statesman, domestic leader, and inspirational figure. But Migalli found that Arafat wore so many hats that he shared a “contradictory” role of liberation leader and head of state.

“You cannot do both. He was happy with the glamour, with being president, the flood of power,” Migalli said.

Middle East experts have often pointed to how Arafat had to walk a line between world demands for peace and the demands of Palestinians, many of whom did not want to concede much ground with Israel.

“In spite of all his faults, if you will, only Arafat was able to make concessions,” Migalli said. “Any leader who would make as (many) concessions would be looked upon as a political traitor.”

But Solender, relaying the opinions of many Jews, considered Arafat “short-sighted” on achieving peace.

Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for signing off on the Oslo peace accords, but in 2000 he rejected an agreement brokered by President Clinton and accepted by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak that could have created a Palestinian state.

After those talks broke apart, and after Ariel Sharon visited a plaza outside a mosque, Palestinians engaged in a violent protest known as the second intifada. Opponents of Arafat consider him responsible for starting the intifada, and creating a terrorist infrastructure as he worked for peace.

Solender said he stops short of agreeing with the sentiment that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations were formed in Arafat’s shadow. But he does hold Arafat responsible for “a lack of tolerance and a hatred that created an environment where the hatred could foment,” he said.

“Where do people learn hatred? They learn it at the dinner table,” Solender said. “Arafat was right out there” inciting Palestinians, all the while ignoring his peoples’ basic needs, he said. Solender also pointed to Arafat keeping tight control of Palestinian assets, including billions of dollars.

Migalli noted how Arafat failed to develop any future leaders, and that he mirrored other Arab leaders in this regard. “This does not mean there will be a vacuum,” he said. “The Palestinians will be capable to get beyond this era. There is no really strong second line, and the people are still mourning. Still, I don’t expect a vacuum.”

Arafat’s duties leading the Palestinian Authority now fall to Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, while The Palestine Liberation Organization will be run by its deputy, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Unlike Migalli, Solender did see a gap in Palestinian leadership, but he thinks that more engaged leaders could now emerge.

“It has been so long since there’s been any voice of reason, but in that vacuum level heads will step in,” Solender said. “There will be a very strong group of academics who will see a different path to resolution. In that vacuum I hope their voices will be more strident.”

He does hold out hope that Palestinians and Israelis can achieve peace, saying that Arafat had been a struggling block to peace but now a great opportunity exists. Solender also wants the Israeli government to “not only put out a hand but to step forward,” he said. “It’s not all one way.”

For Migalli, peace can come with Israel leaving all occupied territories, meaning a complete withdrawal from not just the Gaza Strip but the West Bank. He recalled the adage “If you want peace, work for justice” in examining the future of Arab-Israeli relations.

“The issue has to be based on justice,” he said. “Israeli security is important, but Palestinian statehood is also important.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or