The death of this flawed leader offers an opportunity that must not be squandered

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The Independent Online

The lingering death of Yasser Arafat, chronicled as it was organ failure by organ failure, was as harrowing as it was unenviable. Yet the 10 days the Palestinian leader spent in a French military hospital afforded one benefit: it dulled the shock and it allowed preparations to be made for the transition. The relative calm that prevailed in Gaza and the West Bank after the news broke early yesterday, the arrangements for today's funeral in Cairo and the compromise over the burial place might not have been possible without the luxury of time.

None of this was to be taken for granted. The occupied territories are volatile at the best of times. There were incidents and sporadic outbreaks of violence against Israeli settlements yesterday, but nothing like the furious anarchy that might have followed Mr Arafat's demise. These are early days, but it is to be hoped that it will be grief for a leader who, however contentious, symbolised many Palestinians' aspirations, rather than anti-Israeli anger that will accompany his passing. The calm in which those who surely considered themselves rivals divided his posts between them augured well for an orderly succession.

Mr Arafat's body left Paris and arrived in Cairo with all due ceremonial. The decision to hold a full military funeral in the Egyptian capital, the city of his birth, combines the appropriate and the practical in almost equal measure. It brings his life full circle. It acknowledged the many years of his life when he considered himself, and was considered by his people, to be above all a fighter. It recognises the legitimacy of his cause - Palestinian statehood - if not always the methods he selected for pursuing it. And it allows dignitaries from many countries to pay their last respects. This would not have been possible in Israeli-occupied territory.

The choice of Mr Arafat's headquarters at Ramallah as his place of burial is also judicious. Whoever decided not to press the case for burial in Jerusalem was wise. In current circumstances, insistence on Temple Mount would have been not only unrealistic but tantamount to a provocation. It was wise of Israel, too, not to demand burial in Gaza or outside the country. One day, perhaps, Yasser Arafat may be laid to rest in a united Jerusalem. But that day has not yet arrived.

The fervent hope must be, however, that it has drawn a little closer with Mr Arafat's departure. He was the uniter of the unjustly dispossessed Palestinians. He kept alive their hopes of one day reconstituting their nation on their own territory. But he was also a battle-hardened soldier who, at one stage of his life, ordered acts of terrorism and who, in his later years, wielded insufficient authority to prevent them. He tried periodically, starting from his dramatic appearance at the United Nations, "with an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other", to make the transition from fighter to national leader and negotiator, but he never completely carried conviction in that later role. He never saw the Promised Land.

History will judge whether Mr Arafat was to blame for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000. The belief at the time was that these talks would have presaged the end of the conflict with Israel and laid the foundations for a Palestinian state. A charitable view of their failure would simply be that the agreement would not have endured, and that forging a lasting peace was a task for a new generation.

However the past is interpreted, the present offers an unheralded opportunity for advancing the prospects of peace. The Israeli Prime Minister has won a parliamentary mandate for withdrawing from Gaza. President Bush is on the threshold of a second term and will be looking to his legacy. The European Union has an interest in showing foreign-policy unity and is keen to assist the Palestinians in developing Gaza. If the Palestinians hold timely elections that produce a forward-looking leader who wields authority, US and Israeli complaints that there is no one to negotiate with will be put to the test. The opportunity is there. But it will not be there for long; it must be grasped.