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Arafat’s Legacy: Lacking Herzl’s Wisdom?

Is Arafat like an entrepreneur who failed to hire an experienced CEO?

November 9, 2004

Is Arafat like an entrepreneur who failed to hire an experienced CEO?

Throughout his life, Yasser Arafat has had a love-hate relationship with both Arabs and Israelis. So how should history assess the contributions of this Nobel Prize winning, yet stateless leader?

Let’s borrow a valuation tool from the business world. One way to measure the value of a company is to look at other companies within the same industry that face similar risks — then see how the company in question is performing in comparison.

Our first task in “valuing” Arafat’s achievements is to find a similar Mideast figure, somebody who created a national identity where there was not yet a state.

Turn back the clock to Europe in 1896, when a Hungarian Jewish journalist by the name of Theodor Herzl was publishing the political pamphlet called “Der Judenstaat” — German for “The Jewish State.”

The following year, Herzl created the Zionist World Congress — of which he became the first president — and then spent the rest of his life creating a vision for what would become modern Israel.

How does Arafat stack up to the achievements of Herzl? Both men founded and led a national movement for their people — but who was more successful? Now, 100 years after the death of Herzl, Israel is very similar to the Jewish state that he had envisioned: an altneuland mixing the modern with the ancient.

The country is a major player in IT-related industries and cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa are unmistakably modern. Yet, Israel’s rich history and culture remind every visitor that they are still in the heart of an ancient Middle East.

Israel has also hedged capitalism and socialism by developing a market economy dotted by socialist kibbutz communities — an economy not unlike the one Herzl foresaw where free enterprise and state involvement went hand in hand.

Arafat’s Palestine is not yet a reality, so the jury is still out on the final mark that Arafat will leave on the country. The other difficulty in assessing Arafat’s success in comparison to Herzl’s is that his vision for a Palestinian state has been intertwined — and at times tangled — with the vision for peace with Israel.

Arafat was so wound up in securing the option for statehood from Israel that he never really offered a vision to his own people for what that state should look like.

Arafat succeeded, just as Herzl, in creating an identity and national movement for his people — but fell short as a visionary for a Palestinian state. But the analysis of Arafat does not end here.

The scope of Arafat’s legacy goes beyond founding a national movement. He was also a peacemaker and a political leader. To value these roles, we will have to employ an entire portfolio of Mideast leaders for comparison.

Peacemaker: Rewind to Maryland in 1978, where Egyptian President Anwar Sadat formed the Camp David Accords for Middle East Peace along with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Three years later, Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian militants for his peace efforts. Does Arafat measure up to the peace achievements of Sadat? Although Arafat did not pay the ultimate price for making peace with Israel in the Oslo Accords, his counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin, did.

Arafat’s unpopular decision to make peace with Israel was certainly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize — as was Sadat’s move for peace at Camp David.

Political Leader: The year is 1948 and David Ben-Gurion is the first Prime Minister of the newly-created state of Israel. Ben-Gurion saw Israel through its difficult birth — its struggle for independence from Britain and its immediate fight for survival against its Arab neighbors.

Arafat was never able to realize a Palestinian state — or build a nation — as Ben-Gurion had. Making peace and making Palestine proved to be more than he could handle. But does this mean that history should record him as a failure?

Let us use another analogy from the business world. Arafat was an entrepreneur with a great idea for a company. He brought all the investors to the table and sold them on the idea — but then insisted that he run the company instead of hiring an experienced CEO.

It is a mistake that many founders have made simply because they love an organization so much that they can’t let go — even if it would be better for the company.

A great leader should always do what is best for an organization — whether it hurts his ego or popularity or not. Over 30 years ago, when Arafat first emerged as a moderate Palestinian activist willing to speak with the West, he was a good leader.

When he shook hands with Rabin on the White House lawn despite the objections of many Palestinians, he was a good leader. But in 2000 when he walked away from the Camp David talks — which would have been the foundation to a Palestinian state — he demonstrated that he was no Ben-Gurion.

In the end, Arafat was a founding father and a peacemaker — but not the person to build a Palestinian state. He juggled the hats of Herzl, Sadat and Ben-Gurion and achieved success in all but one.

Two out of three is not bad for the history books — but holding back the birth of Palestine and a lasting peace with Israel is something that may not be easily forgiven.

Perhaps Arafat should have been content with his early achievements and left the creation of Palestine to someone else. As Herzl wrote after the first Zionist World Congress in Switzerland in 1897, “In Basle I founded the Jewish state. Maybe in five years, certainly in 50, everyone will realize it.”

For Palestinians, there now remains one question: Who will be their Ben-Gurion?