US Can Pick Up Arafat's Dream

More of a dreamer than a visionary, and more of a freedom fighter than a freedom bringer, Yasser Arafat nonetheless achieved an important goal as a controversial leader over four decades: He helped persuade the United States to seek an independent Palestine.

The US has the means to help fulfill the dream Arafat couldn't. And now, after Arafat's passing yesterday, it gains more leeway to assist Palestinians in a cause that most Israelis also have come to accept.

Arafat's second-biggest achievement, at least on paper and in words, was finally to accept modern Israel as a fixture in the Middle East rather than an entity to be destroyed. Doing so enabled him to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

In return, under the 1994 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians achieved limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. "For the first time our people have been fixed on the political map and geographical map of the Middle East," Arafat told the Monitor in a 1995 interview.

Arafat's past association with terrorist attacks, however, and his recent unwillingness as Palestinian Authority president to work harder to crack down on militants attacking Israeli civilians, remained an obstacle to his ultimate dream.

And his unwillingness to groom an able successor, decentralize power, and prevent misuse of foreign aid could mean the Palestinians face a difficult transition and uncertain future.

But if elections for a new president are held within 60 days, as called for, and a winner emerges with electoral legitimacy and a firmness to end the attacks, then Israel and the US have perhaps a new Palestinian "partner."

The fact that both the Palestinians and the Iraqis could be holding elections about the same time in January not only shows how much the Middle East has changed during Arafat's time but also should send a strong message to the region's many autocratic rulers that ballots, not bombs, are the way to resolve differences.

And the fact that a second-term President Bush doesn't face another election can free him of domestic political pressures in pushing Israel harder to make more concessions toward peace. Israel, for instance, should offer to remove most Jewish settlements on the West Bank as well as finish its planned withdrawal from Gaza.

Palestinians, meanwhile, can end the myth of martyrdom that Arafat developed for himself and his people. The world is on their side now, due in large measure to Arafat's dream rather than his tactics.

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