The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Wednesday was met on campus with reactions ranging from sadness to relief. But most agree that his death will, more than anything, create opportunity for a shift in Middle Eastern politics.
Arafat, who led the Palestine Liberation Organization since 1969, passed away Thursday at 3:30 a.m. Paris time, at the age of 75. Following a week-long coma, his passing did not come as a shock to most of the Yale community.
“It’s sad, but it opens doors for the Israeli peace process,” said Santiago Suarez ’07, vice president of the Yale International Relations Association.
Some students said Arafat was a strong leader, someone who fought for the best interests of the Palestinians. Others called him a terrorist and an impediment toward peace in the Middle East.
After negotiations at Camp David fell through in 2000, Suarez said, Arafat lost all credibility with Israel and the United States. Suarez added his hope that — if Arafat’s successor is chosen carefully –the United States, Israel and Palestine might all be brought back to the peacekeeping table.
Political science professor Ellen Lust-Okar agreed that Arafat’s death could be an opportunity for peace. But the United States, among others, must be careful, she said.
“It’s not the time to pick players,” she said. “It’s a time to think about how you can reconstruct the Palestinian Authority.”
The most promising way to do that, she said, would be to have open elections that involve all potential successors, not just the favorites of Israel and the United States. That would help prove to the Palestinians and the Arab world that the United States and Israel are true champions of democracy and may help the peace process.
Mark Aziz ’05, the public relations chair for the Arab Students’ Association, agreed that elections would be a step in the right direction.
“The Palestinian Authority needs to become truly representative of the Palestinians and what they want,” said Aziz, who said he was not speaking for the ASA. “Until it is a democracy, I think peace is going to be frustrated.”
Zvika Krieger ’06, senior editor of the Yale Israel Journal, said elections would be a positive step, but difficult to carry out. There would need to be a “massive” international effort to ensure that elections were fair, he said.
But he agreed with Lust-Okar that all political players, not only the more favored or conventional ones, should be included. Perhaps even Hamas, a popular militant group, he said.
“I would be hesitant to negotiate with [Hamas], and prematurely embrace them as a viable, political group,” he said. “But I think that by integrating them into the democratic process, it might help to moderate their stance.”
More willingness to compromise on all sides might also help the peace process, said Lust-Okar.
Many said Arafat’s name will remain in the public memory of both Jerusalem and the world for many years to come.
Some students, including Krieger, said he will be remembered as a terrorist.
Other students brought up Arafat’s often-contentious role in peace negotiations. Many said he was responsible for bringing them to a halt in 2000 at Camp David.
According to Isaac Selya ’08, Arafat refused to accept “95 percent of what Palestinians were looking for” during negotiations.
“He was the old guard of the Palestinians, and the rest of the world regarded him as a stumbling block to the peace process,” he said.
But Lust-Okar said that, given the political climate at the time, it was no surprise that Arafat turned down the Camp David offers. In the future, Israelis might see that Arafat was for both the Palestinian people and for peace, Aziz said.
Not that Arafat was perfect, Aziz said, calling Arafat “corrupt” and “opportunistic.” But he should be remembered as a strong leader of the Palestinians, and an icon of the Palestinian movement, Aziz said.
“He was a symbol of Palestinian cause and all the suffering they’ve been through, because he’s been through so much suffering himself,” Aziz said.