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Editorial: Mr Yasser Arafat's tattered flag

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-10

THE departure of Mr Yasser Arafat from the political arena removes the only international icon that Palestinians really ever had since their land was transformed by the United Nations into the Jewish State of Israel 56 years ago. He was a unique figure who constantly re-invented himself from the long-ago days when he was a mere civil engineer in Kuwait, part of the six-million-strong Palestinian Diaspora living in various countries but not in the independent state that it yearned to have. Mr Arafat was a practitioner of the in-your-face school of politics, a shrewd tactician whose primary weapon was his personal veto: No to assorted peace proposals, no to opportunities for Palestinian statehood offered by sympathetic leaders like former US president Bill Clinton, no to anything other than full and complete possession of the historical Palestinian homeland - the maximalist approach that his more powerful adversary, Israel, would never countenance, let alone consider. Like many ambitious men with a driving dream and an emotionally charged constituency, Mr Arafat was a larger-than-life figure who never thought that his temporal innings would end. That's why Palestinians are scrambling around to find a voice for their cause. Mr Arafat has left behind only a flag for them.

That flag will never be hoisted on a lanyard in an independent Palestine unless three unlikely things are made to happen: The freshly re-elected President George W. Bush of the United States brings intransigent Israelis, disputatious Palestinians of all hues - including the Islamist Hamas - overly cautious Russians, and the diplomatically dysfunctional UN, to the bargaining table. There need not be a protracted negotiation because Mr Clinton's proposal of a take-it-as-it-is Palestine - with some terrorial adjustments - is still valid. Second is the question of good governance of the territories currently run by the largely corrupt Palestine Authority, which was created after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. Palestinian leaders will need to successfully demonstrate to the global investment community that they can be entrusted with the graduation of these territories to a legitimate, full-fledged nation-state through the establishment of transparent public institutions and the adoption of market-oriented policies. And third, Israel will have to come to terms with the destiny of demography - unless it agrees to Palestinian statehood, it will soon be a Jewish State with an Arab majority. That immediately raises the question of second -class citizenship for increasingly volatile Arabs, or one of a secular state in which both Jews and Arabs engage in participatory democracy. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is by no means committed to the latter; and the question of segregated citizenship is so abhorrent that it ought to be dispatched with alacrity. Will President Bush move on the Middle East? Will Palestinians stop bickering among themselves long enough to sit down and talk with thee Israelis? And will Mr Sharon and his like-minded historical recidivists who want to re-establish the biblical polity of Judea and Samara, be willing to engage in realpolitik? Big questions these. But the biggest question, as Mr Yasser Arafat's name becomes one for the ages, is: What if? What if he had thought more about the plight of the millions of his dispossessed fellow Palestinians and focused less on grandstanding? Say this for Mr Yasser Arafat: he was sui generis, but that wasn't enough.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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