In his protracted moment of death, Palestinian president Yasser Arafat performed his last act of duty to the Palestinian cause to which he devoted his entire life. Everything about the man was, indeed, protracted. He carried out a protracted war of national liberation. He withstood a series of protracted sieges -- in Amman (1970), Beirut (1982) and in Ramallah (2002 to this year).
Arafat's leadership was the most protracted among his counterparts in the Arab world, as he outlived three Egyptian presidents (Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and spanned all of Mubarak's quarter of a century), five Lebanese presidents, three Iraqis, five Algerians, three Syrians, three Saudi monarchs, and two in Morocco, not to mention other world leaders, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush in the US, from Charles de Gaulle to JacquesChirac in France, and from Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to three successors in China. Probably no other political figure alive today met and endured as many world leaders as Arafat.
But there is much more to Arafat's legacy than endurance. It has been correctly said over and again that Arafat was a mixed blessing for his people. Their fate and destiny have been inextricably linked, to the near demise of both at times. For several decades after the usurpation of their homeland, Palestinians were reduced to aggregates of refugees, some remaining in the newly created state of Israel as second-class citizens, with others scattered over the Arab world and far beyond.
It was Arafat, through the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) he founded, that gave them a sense of identity as a people.
Regardless of its effectiveness, the armed struggle waged by the PLO did empower the Palestinians and internalize a sense of collective dignity and self-respect within them. Their cause could no longer be ignored. No other modern issue has appropriated as many UN resolutions or as much international diplomacy.
If politics is defined as the art of compromise, Arafat was a master of it at the Palestinian and Arab levels. He managed to stay at the helm for over 40 years with no serious challengers.
Internationally, however, he was out of step with the post Cold War era. Whether or not he was solely to blame, a true opportunity for historical compromise was missed at Camp David in August 2000, and he himself acknowledged it a year later. By that time it was too late, as the leadership in both the US and Israel had changed and there was no interest to engage him.
During the last four years of his life, Arafat's public space was literally and metaphorically diminishing. He was unable to re-engage his Israeli adversaries or control his suicide-bound Palestinian militants. Nor was he able to contain let alone combat rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
Nor was Arafat helped by world events that shifted the spotlight to Bush's wars on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. If anything, they had adverse effects for him and his life-long cause. Like his own body, Arafat's familiar world was steadily fading away with irreversible loss of control.
Ironically however, as he was dying, world leaders and the media were rediscovering the importance of Arafat's leadership if not his persona. The sustained focus of the media on him, to the point of near saturation, focused world attention on the Palestinian Question once again.