Yasser Arafat is gone, at least for now. His prolonged leadership has been corrosive to his own people and deadly to Israelis. Much attention is now directed to the question of what course the Palestinians will take in the post-Arafat era. Will a different kind of leader emerge to reverse course and take them off the self-destructive path?
In an analysis in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Uzi Benziman characterizes Arafat as "driven by an obsession to establish a Palestinian state in blood and fire, on the ruins of the State of Israel." Then Benziman asks the critical question regarding the future of the Palestinians: "whether Arafat is a transitory person, whose worldview will not outlast his death, or whether he is an ethos."
Webster's defines ethos as "The character, sentiment, or disposition of a community or people, considered as a natural endowment; the spirit which actuates manners and customs." Though we might hope Arafat's departure would inaugurate a new way of thinking for the Palestinians, the evidence indicates otherwise.
The tragic fact is Arafat has fabricated the ethos of his people. He on the political side, and Hamas on the religious side, have effected the radicalization of the Palestinians. Any genuine moderate voices among the Palestinians have long been silenced. Branded as collaborators with Israel and targeted by Arafat as a threat to his revolutionary agenda, the true Palestinian moderates were murdered or driven away. This is typically how tyrannical dictators consolidate power. Arafat thoroughly accomplished that brutal consolidation, to the perpetual detriment of his people.
Arafat's motto "As martyrs by the millions, we will march into Jerusalem" has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Palestinians. In addition, the emergence of Hamas' extreme Islamist ideology as the dominant thread weaved through the cultural fabric, not competitive with Arafat but complementary to him, indicates the sobering answer to Benziman's question.
Arafat is an ethos.
This lethal reality is why the so-called "peace process" was doomed from the start. At the inception of the Oslo agreement, some analysts predicted its failure for these very reasons, but were largely dismissed as naysayers. Belatedly, both the US and Israel excluded Arafat after concluding the supposedly reformed terrorist was still a terrorist. But it is much too late. The factors which led to those initial, now-vindicated negative projections have been exacerbated. The radical element is even more radical, a pervasive malignancy.
The "blood and fire" martyr's complex, mixed in with an unhealthy dose of Islamic fatalism, has become the Palestinian ethos. Arafat cultivated it like a virulent pathogen, infecting the entire organism of Palestinian culture. The highest ideal of this ethos is the sacred duty to become a shahid, to die a glorious death fighting the hated Zionists. Even three year old children easily recite the phrase "Yitbach al Yehud" (Kill the Jews). It is a mantra well-embedded into the Palestinian ethos.
When a populace is unremorsefully dominated by a worldview entirely incompatible with peace, no externally imposed peace process could succeed. Yet predictably, the land-for peace camp is spinning Arafat's departure as a new opportunity for revitalizing that dead process.
Let's play along with them for a moment, and imagine that their fantasy is possible. What kind of successor to Arafat could take the Palestinians in a new, positive direction? Examine the candidates who may vie for power: Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qureia, Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Marwan Barghouti, Ismail Haniya, or pick another. While they may not exhibit Arafat's singular brand of dementia which made journalists and diplomats shake their heads in disgust, they all share the same base ideology. Indeed, they could not be otherwise; that view was prerequisite for being a close associate of Arafat.
The Palestinian leadership's common proclivity for justifying jihad against Israel, combined with the unmitigated integration of the radical Islamist ideology into the popular mindset, is a recipe for catastrophe. Even if a truly moderate Palestinian leader were to magically appear out of nowhere, one who had not been a part of the corrupt old guard and who genuinely wanted to work for peace, he would be immediately denounced by the Palestinian street as an agent for the Israelis and Americans. The people seem to want an unyielding jihad warrior, and apparently they will get want they want.
Arafat's legacy will be a curse on the Palestinians long after he has gone. He has led them on a course that will only end very badly for them. During his long reign as their leader, he has instilled an ethos that mirrors his own nefarious, murderous character. If Arafat is the Palestinian patriarch, his posterity is barbarity, and his patrimony will be catastrophe.