With his grizzled features and checkered kaffiya, Yasir Arafat was the face of Palestine and a symbol to its people. He spent decades passionately fighting, as a terrorist and a political leader, to achieve an independent Palestinian state. Yet when he died, late last year, that eventuality seemed to be receding into the distance. In The Atlantic's September 2005 cover story, "In a Ruined Country," David Samuels traces Arafat's impact on Palestine—suggesting that the man who created Palestine was also its destroyer.
In a land known for political hardball, one can't help but acknowledge the political brilliance of Arafat. He managed to keep himself in a position of power for years—by strategic manipulation, conspiracy, and, Samuels notes, his keen "ability to dodge a threat." And yet, Samuels argues, being a deft politician hardly ensured that Arafat was a good leader for his people.
As the father of Palestine, Arafat was also the guardian of its myths, its hopes, and its possibilities. It is in this role that Samuels sees Arafat's greatest failures. Arafat's political goal of creating an independent Palestine in the ruins of the Israeli state overwhelmed all other considerations, including the welfare of his people. Palestine was founded, Samuels writes, "on a festering grievance rather than any positive imagination of the future; the worse things were in the present, the stronger the Palestinian case became." Even with financial aid and political incentives, Samuels contends that Arafat refused to build an economy, infrastructure, or even to improve refugee housing—things that would be necessary as the basis for an actual functioning, independent state. In fact, he argues, to envision a Palestinian state that is not connected to either Israel or Jordan is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.