History gave Yasser Arafat far more time than most leaders to achieve his mission. After all, at the time of his death he had been leader of the Palestinians for 35 years. Yet he left his people in a terrible situation, with no state, in the midst of a losing war, and with a bankrupt economy. Whether his successors can revive and complete the Palestinians' historic mission depends on how they define their goal.
Looking back at his career, Arafat never really veered from the belief that his life's mission was to destroy Israel by any means necessary and replace it with a Palestinian Arab state. An independent Palestinian state that did not include all of Israel held no appeal to him. He was equally indifferent to his people's material welfare and anything particular about the design of a viable political and economic system.
Now, in the post-Arafat era, Palestinians must choose one of several strategies. Unfortunately, most of the alternatives call for the continued use of violence and terrorism.
The moderate strategy seeks an independent Palestine state as quickly as possible, on the assumption that once there is no more Israeli presence or violence, the Palestinians can concentrate on constructive pursuits, including resettling refugees and improving living standards. But this is the view of only a small minority of leaders, notably former Prime Minister Abu Mazin and Muhammad Dahlan, who heads his own militia in the Gaza Strip.
If Arafat had taken this road -- accepting Israel's existence, ending terrorism and confronting Palestinian extremists -- the conflict would have ended long ago. But, with no single all-powerful leader, it will be hard for any successor to force through the difficult decisions required by such an orientation.
The hard-line strategy is the traditional ideological approach championed by many Fatah and PLO veterans who returned from exile to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including Arafat. Their current leaders include men like Palestine National Council head Salim al-Zanun and Fatah ideological chief Sakr Habash, who favor continuing to battle Israel until it is destroyed, at which point they will rule Palestine with a relatively secular nationalist regime. They look down at younger challengers and view the Islamists as a threat.
The younger generation of indigenous West Bank Palestinians, whose leaders began political activity in the uprising of the late 1970's, embraces a militant strategy that views the hardliners as burned-out old fogies, enervated by corruption. Unlike the hard-line secularists, the militants, whose best-known leader is Marwan Barghuti, the head of the Tanzim grassroots grouping in Fatah, are willing to work with the Islamists.
The militants argue that a two-stage strategy is needed to defeat Israel. First, long-term continuation of violence will force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Then, with Palestinians gaining the upper hand, they can advance to a second stage in which all of Israel is conquered, implying armed struggle -- which often takes the form of anti-civilian terrorism -- for many more years.
Finally, there is the revolutionary Islamist vision espoused by Hamas, which seeks to continue fighting and using terrorism, regardless of how much time it takes and lives it costs, until it defeats both Israel and Palestinian secular nationalists. Palestine will then be an Islamist state in which moderates would be shot and the old nationalist leadership forcibly retired or jailed for corruption. In the meantime, however, Hamas is willing to form alliances with the nationalists, particularly the militant faction of Fatah.