It was an inadvertent tribute by President Bush to Yasser Arafat's 36 years as leader of the Palestinians and to a controversial man admired by some as a freedom fighter and reviled by others as a terrorist.
Asked to comment on what turned out to be premature reports of Mr. Arafat's death last week, Mr. Bush said, "My first reaction is, May God bless his soul. My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that is at peace with Israel."
That second part points up Mr. Arafat's foremost success: keeping the cause of Palestinian statehood alive until it was endorsed by the international community, including the US and - at least formally - by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Israel.
As Palestinians readied for Arafat's funeral in Cairo and burial in his battered Ramallah headquarters, there was a sense among US and Israeli leaders that a new opportunity for peacemaking could open now that Arafat, whom they shunned, is gone.
But reviving the international blueprint for peace, known as the road map, may prove difficult, as Israelis and Palestinians each expect the other to make the first move. The plan calls for the establishment
of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Palestinians say Arafat, who Israel alleged was involved in terror, was never the real obstacle to peace. They blame Israel's hard-hitting army policies and what they say was Mr. Sharon's desire to avoid negotiations. Their suspicions seemed to them to be confirmed when Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, recently said that the prime minister had been endeavoring to freeze the peace process.
"We are now in a place where we have to see if the Israelis are serious about peace or not," says Palestinian legislator Dalal Salameh, from the Fatah movement, which Arafat headed. "They have been saying no negotiations with Arafat. Now, something has happened from God, and we have a new leadership after Arafat."
Sharon told Israel's Y-net news agency: "I hope the new leadership that emerges will understand that progress in relations and a solution to the problems depend first and foremost on a war by them against terror, and its complete cessation."
In addition to mourning, the Palestinians Thursday concentrated on making a smooth transition and avoiding a power vacuum. Mahmoud Abbas was voted into Arafat's old job as head of the PLO executive committee, while Rawhi Fatouh, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, took the oath of acting president of the Palestinian Authority for 60 days, during which elections are to be held. Mr. Abbas, a moderate who is internationally respected for his role in the Oslo self-rule agreement, was mentioned Thursday as a leading contender when Fatah conducts its nomination for the presidency. Because of the presence of Israeli troops breaking up the election districts, the polling can take place only with Israel's agreement. One of Abbas's first jobs is expected to be to try to secure it.
Arafat's critics say that along with bringing the Palestinians in sight of the promised land of statehood, Arafat leaves behind a West Bank and Gaza Strip in shambles.
Future Palestinian leaders are likely to be challenged, they say, by intensified Israeli occupation, rampant Palestinian lawlessness, and a power vacuum because Arafat did not groom a successor or develop independent institutions. The militias and factions that Arafat let develop will prove a deadly legacy, they add.
But for now, many Palestinians are focused on Arafat's legacy of a Palestinian identity.
"Arafat forged a people with an identity, a people demanding self-determination, and with Arafat dead, we will continue to demand this right of self-determination," says veteran Palestinian politician Abdul Fatah Ghanim.
Those who underscore this achievement stress that when Arafat took up the cause with Fatah's first attack in 1965, an abortive bombing of an Israeli canal, Palestinians were broken up under Jordanian, Egyptian, and Israeli rule, or scattered around the world. No one spoke of the Palestinians as a nation with rights. Arab regimes manipulated the cause for their interests.
"Arafat brought us back from the brink of national extinction," says Michael Tarazi, legal adviser to the PLO. "Israel's strategy was to disperse the Palestinians and make the problem go away, but Arafat made sure our rights are always on the agenda."
Ramallah teacher Ali Jariri adds: "He taught the Palestinian people how to keep their land, culture, and identity."
Uri Avnery, head of Israel's Gush Shalom Peace Group, who knew Arafat well, says, "Who cared about the Palestinians before him?"
The 1965 attack started the "armed struggle" that repeatedly struck civilian Israeli targets and gave Arafat a reputation, held to his death, as a terrorist.
One particularly grim image of PLO terrorism was that of a hooded gunman on the balcony of the Israeli team headquarters at the Munich 1972 Olympics. Fifteen people were killed in exchanges of fire between the gunmen and police, including all nine Israeli hostages.
In another attack engraved in Israeli collective memory, 11 Fatah commandos landed near Haifa and hijacked a bus with 63 passengers in 1978. Thirty-four Israelis and nine attackers died.
Israel responded with an invasion of southern Lebanon in which an estimated 200 PLO fighters and 500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed, along with 20 Israeli soldiers.
Mr. Avnery argues that Arafat was no different from other nationalist leaders in using violence. "National struggle consists of both negotiations and armed struggle," he says. "As long as Israel is not willing to make peace, there will be armed struggle. If a national movement cannot use legitimate means of negotiation, it turns to violence."
It was a second, larger Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that expelled Arafat from his Beirut headquarters to Tunis, where he remained until 1994.
Diplomatically, Arafat took a step toward a peace agreement with Israel in 1988 when he renounced terrorism and recognized the right of all Middle Eastern states to exist in peace and security. In 1993, secret diplomacy with Israel culminated in the Oslo agreement, sealed on the White House lawn with a handshake with his Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Rabin that raised hopes for a historic reconciliation. The agreement, however, which brought Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994 to launch self-rule, left open the thorniest issues, including refugees, borders, and Jerusalem.
Many Israelis insist Arafat was given a chance for a negotiated solution at the Camp David summit in 2000 but instead rebuffed the offer, forfeiting a legacy as a statesman and state founder. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered to withdraw Israeli settlements in the West Bank, except for a few, and to turn over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.
"Arafat was ... a chief negotiator who could have made it happen but didn't," says Ronnie Brizon, a Knesset member from the centrist Shinui Party. "He was a revolutionary who couldn't take the final step."
Partly because he rejected Camp David, Arafat leaves a legacy "of unreadiness to compromise, and this is very problematic for the future," says Shalom Harari, a former adviser on Palestinians to the Israeli defense ministry.
But Palestinians cite the Camp David summit as contributing to a legacy of Arafat as someone who would not sell out Palestinian rights. "Arafat viewed himself as the head of a tribe," says Ramallah Fatah activist Ramadan Safi. "According to Camp David, his tribe would have been left in cantons, and he did not want that. The Israelis want to have peace and the land, and this cannot be."
Arafat's critics say that during the last four years of intifadah, the Palestinians have steadily moved further away from the dream of statehood, with Israel reoccupying large swaths of territory and undertaking repeated army incursions. Internally, there has been a surge of lawlessness. While Arafat's defenders blame this on the occupation and Israel's refusing to allow the PA to deploy armed police, his critics say he fueled the chaos.
Early this year, Nablus mayor Ghassan Shaka, a 10-year incumbent, wrote in his resignation to Arafat, "Nablus is going through a state of ... accelerated deterioration.... [T]hat chaos has become the normal attitude, the lack of security and order the daily practice, and the law of the jungle, a point of view."
During the summer, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades burned down PA offices in Jenin, fighting raged between security forces and men in Gaza, and Nabil Amr, a Palestinian legislator, was wounded in Ramallah. In Bethlehem, armed fugitives ensconced themselves in hospitals. And branches of the security forces were involved in turf battles.
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group, says it will be difficult for any successor to get the streets under control. "It's a little late to come and say the executive committee of the PLO can stop it, or [former prime minister] Mahmoud Abbas can.... A leader who calls for reining in these groups could be shot several hours."
Mr. Safi says Arafat could not have halted the armed intifadah without something tangible to show the Palestinians. "Israel has to change its leadership," he says. "We need a new era with new leaders. God help the next Palestinian leader. It won't be easy."