Arafat is no Mandela, but his legacy could be one of peace

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Yasser Arafat appears to be slipping from life just as he has lived it, the centre of media attention, the object of an extraordinary confusion of rumour and fact, but still capable of taking the world's attention from the first press conference of a re-elected US president who has spent the past two years trying to marginalise and ignore him.

Most of the obituaries and appreciations had already been produced when Arafat fell seriously ill in Ramallah a week ago and was moved to hospital in France last weekend. So, too, has much of the speculation about his successor and the gap he leaves. Yet his descent into a coma has still come as a shock, leaving the Palestinians, the Israelis and the outside world at a loss as to how to read his likely end. Does it open up the path to peace by removing a figure with whom both the Israeli and US leaders refused to deal? Or does it presage a period of intensifying, and quite possibly violent, uncertainty which will stop the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and delay indefinitely any prospect of peace negotiations?

The confusion over Arafat's condition is an indication of just how far the Palestinians themselves are still from sorting out his succession, despite the time they have had to prepare for it. Formally, his place as president of the Palestinian Authority would be held by the speaker of parliament while elections are prepared for 60 days' time. In reality, Arafat has left a situation in which there was, deliberately, no obvious successor nor a collegiate structure to replace him. The Palestinians have been trying hard to create a group leadership to take them to elections, but whether they can hold together, and whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad will remain quiescent while they do so, remains very much an open question.

So, too, with the all-important issue of peace. Arafat's continued presence undoubtedly complicated the prospects of peace under the road-map endorsed by Washington and grudgingly accepted by Israel two years ago. But then so did the actions of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. By demonising Arafat, Jerusalem - and Washington - ensured that the Palestinian people came to his support.

His demise, however, would not automatically increase the chances of peace. For that to happen depends as much on the Israelis' willingness to chance security in the interests of peace as it does on the Palestinians to come up with an effective and trustworthy leadership with whom the Israelis can negotiate. Sharon, for so long locked in conflict with Arafat, has still to prove himself the better man when it comes to peace. If Arafat became, in recent years, a lesser figure, it was in part because he became the creation of Israel's own policies of ruthless assassination, punishment, incursions and, not least, the security wall. It is a legacy of embitterment and distrust which would have required a Mandela to overcome.

Arafat was never that. But he has been a considerable figurehead, a survivor who was creator as well as victim of his people's tragic history. If his end can help them to a better future, then his life will seem the better for it.

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