In the days when Britain was being forced to give up one colony after another, the phrase "father of the nation" was much in vogue. Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia were among the many who won this informal title -- not just from journalists in search of a label but, more importantly, from their own people. As teachers, clerics or trade unionists who became political leaders, they were seen as the chief architects of the struggle for independence.
Forty years on from the age of decolonization, Yasser Arafat is the last man who can claim that status. In many ways his title is even more deserved. He had to win recognition of the fact that there was such a thing as a Palestinian nation at all. For decades, the Arab states and the British, who initially had the mandate to run Palestine, and the Israelis, who moved into the land, refused to accept there were Palestinian people, let alone a nation.
Unlike other independence leaders, Arafat was not working in a situation when the settler community had reached its peak and the metropolitan governments that supported them were starting to lose heart. He had to fight against a constantly expanding settler tide linked to a determined government and a rock-hard military, both of which were backed, or at least not opposed, by a world superpower. Nor was the definition of the territory fixed. It was under constant threat of shrinkage -- and is to this day.
To hold firm in these conditions, to maintain political unity and keep up his people's morale and resistance under conditions of siege, house demolitions and assassinations, was extraordinary. To move from defensive consolidation and to start to build a nation was nigh impossible. That Arafat has managed to do it and retain the affection of his people, not just as a symbol of independence but as a respected and approachable human being, is a tribute to his greatness.
Many Palestinians are convinced that Ariel Sharon, the implacable opponent with whom he had first dueled in exile in Lebanon, had a hand in Arafat's collapse. They remember Sharon's statement earlier this year that he no longer felt bound by his promise "not to harm" Arafat. In a cunningly vague article in the Jerusalem Post, his confidant, Uri Dan, Thursday hinted that Sharon "eliminated" Arafat via one of his chefs. So it is not surprising that rumors are swirling that Arafat was surreptitiously poisoned or infected.
On one point he was helped by Sharon. The Israeli prime minister's blindness over the past three years in refusing to deal with Arafat and getting George W. Bush to try to marginalize him backfired at home and around the world. It increased Arafat's stature. In spite of all the obstacles, the pilgrimage by foreign diplomats to Arafat's quasi-prison continued.
The demand that before any negotiations take place Arafat must first "reform" the Palestinian state and "control" the suicide bombers was equally pointless. In the midst of a cycle of violence for which Israel's provocative incursions are the main motor, it is absurd to expect any leader to act freely.
With or without Arafat, the imperative is for a cease-fire and a resumption of talks with whoever succeeds him. European governments, as members of the quartet alongside Russia, the U.S. and the United Nations, must insist that Sharon's unilateral pullout from Gaza proceed but be embedded in the so-called road map.
An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza cannot be used as a way of "buying" the right to retain any of the illegally occupied territories. Nor can it be done without an internationally accepted document that clearly specifies Gaza's borders, provides the link with the West Bank on which previous draft agreements insisted, and lays down some form of demilitarization that would disqualify Israeli forces from reinvading.
Talks also need to resume on all the West Bank issues, including the right of refugee return and the territory's final status. Otherwise Israel's attempts to turn the West Bank into a series of overcrowded bantustans without a functioning economy will continue unchecked.
Bush's election victory offers a window in which American policy could, in theory, change. A second-term president is less fettered politically. Bush should end his encouragement of Sharon's unilateralism and return unambiguously to the road map that on paper he still claims to support.
Arafat's demise will be both a tragedy and an opportunity. He is the father of the nation but not yet the father of the Palestinian state. It will be up to others to fulfil that task. But the Palestinians have to be the ones to choose them. Leaders selected or anointed by outsiders will never gain the necessary stature.