In the days when Britain was being forced to give up one colony after another, the phrase "father of the nation" was much in vogue.
Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus, and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia were among the many who won this informal title -- not just from journalists in search of a label but, more importantly, from their own people. As teachers, clerics or trade unionists who became political leaders, they were seen as the chief architects of the struggle for independence.
Forty years on from the age of decolonization, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is the last man who can claim that status. In many ways his title is even more deserved. He had to win recognition of the fact that there was such a thing as a Palestinian nation at all. For decades, the Arab states and the British, who initially had the mandate to run Palestine, and the Israelis, who moved into the land, refused to accept there were Palestinian people, let alone a nation.
A different fight
Unlike other independence leaders, Arafat was not working in a situation when the settler community had reached its peak and the metropolitan governments that supported them were starting to lose heart. He had to fight against a constantly expanding settler tide linked to a determined government and a rock-hard military, both of which were backed, or at least not opposed, by a world superpower.
Nor was the definition of the territory fixed. It was under constant threat of shrinkage -- and is to this day.
To hold firm in these conditions, to maintain political unity and keep up his people's morale and resistance under conditions of siege, house demolitions and assassinations, was extraordinary. To move from defensive consolidation and start to build a nation was nigh impossible. That Arafat managed to do it and retain the affection of his people, not just as a symbol of independence but as a respected and approachable human being, is a tribute to his greatness.
Many Palestinians are convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the implacable opponent with whom he had first duelled in exile in Lebanon, had a hand in Arafat's collapse. They remember Sharon's statement earlier this year that he no longer felt bound by his promise "not to harm" Arafat. In a cunningly vague but vicious article in the Jerusalem Post his confidant, Uri Dan, on Thrusday hinted that Sharon "eliminated" Arafat via one of his chefs. So it is not surprising that rumors are swirling that Arafat was surreptitiously poisoned or infected.
On one point he was helped by Sharon. The Israeli prime minister's blindness over the past three years in refusing to deal with Arafat and getting US President George W. Bush to try to marginalize him backfired at home and around the world. It increased Arafat's stature. In spite of all the obstacles, the pilgrimage by foreign diplomats to Arafat's quasi-prison continued.
The demand that before any negotiations take place Arafat must first "reform" the Palestinian state and "control" the suicide bombers was equally pointless. In the midst of a cycle of violence for which Israel's provocative incursions are the main motor, it is absurd to expect any leader to act freely.
`Road map' remains relevent
With or without Arafat, the imperative is for a ceasefire and a resumption of talks with whoever succeeds him. European governments, as members of the quartet alongside Russia, the US and the UN, must insist that Sharon's unilateral pull-out from Gaza proceed but be embedded in the so-called road map.