Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is dead.  While he was alive, he was an obstacle to any fresh vision for peace in the Middle East.  Vainglorious and shifty (he changed his mind about his place of birth thrice), he was unattractive as the “icon” of Palestinian aspirations.  His ineffectiveness as an administrator was exceeded only by his insatiable avarice.  As a negotiator, he was unable to close a deal, to make compromises, or to state his bottom-line position coherently and honestly.  The best that can be said of Arafat is that, in all this, he was true to the Arab political tradition.

Born in 1929 as Rahman Abdul Rauf al-Qudwa al-Husseini, Yasser Arafat was the nephew of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, an ardent Nazi collaborator during World War II.  This pedigree helped “Abu Ammar”—another pseudonym—to cofound Fatah (Victory), an underground organization for the liberation of Palestine that postulated the destruction of Israel, in 1958.  A few years later, he became leader of the PLO and started building up the image of a leftist anti-imperialist revolutionary.  In that role, Arafat peaked in 1974 when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly—the kaffiyeh (Palestinian headscarf), uniform, and holster included—and the world body passed a resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism and supporting the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

Grandstanding before an assortment of Third World and communist despots may have suited Arafat’s vanity, but it did nothing for the Palestinian cause, which went downhill over the ensuing two decades.  Arafat’s opposition to Israel depended for support on the pan-Arab sentiment, notably embodied in Egypt’s Nasserism.  Soon after the Arab defeat in October 1973, though, the pan-Arabist dream died when Anwar Sadat compromised with Israel.  Arafat’s Lebanese fiefdom, built on the ruins of a decent and multiconfessional polity, collapsed nine years later, shattered by Israel and Syria acting together in fact, if not in name.  Arafat’s subsequent exile in Tunisia was comfortable but degrading.

The United States and Israel resurrected Arafat as the lesser evil with the Oslo Accords of 1993.  He did play along at first; once enthroned as a “head of state” in the West Bank and Gaza, however, Arafat tried to wear two incompatible hats.  One day, he was president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), bringing “hard-line” dissidents to heel, indulging his vanity with kitschy head-of-state decorum, and amassing plundered international assistance funds.  The next, as chairman of the PLO, he was abetting radicals and seeking to turn up the heat on Israel.

Then came Arafat’s greatest blunder: his rejection of the deal Bill Clinton presented at Camp David in the closing months of his presidency.  This event, more than any other, proves Arafat’s ineptitude.  Clinton was desperate to score a foreign-policy triumph that would atone for his many scandals, and the peace deal—while far from perfect—accurately reflected the limits of Israeli flexibility at that time.

Arafat’s personal authority collapsed in the ensuing four years.  By the time of his death, he was devoid of any power to direct the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, and of the imagination and courage to help resolve it.  This has suited Sharon, who has been able to pursue his short-term objectives, the “wall of separation” and the consolidation of Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

Like all autocrats, Arafat was loath to prepare an orderly succession to his allegedly indispensable self.  Like most Arab leaders, he was determined to leave the seat of power only in a coffin.

The future of the peace process may depend on the outcome of the struggle for succession.  The surprise announcement by Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian hard-liner imprisoned in Israel, that he would run in the race for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority on January 9 has changed the political equation.  He was convicted last month of involvement in the killings of five Israelis and sentenced to five life terms.  Israel says that she will not release him regardless of the result, and Israeli leaders refer to him as a terrorist.

If Barghouti wins—which is a distinct possibility in view of his popularity with the young, radicalized Palestinian street—the search for peace would not be rekindled for a long time.  The Israeli prime minister would retain a monopoly on deciding who is the acceptable interlocutor.  In other words, Barghouti’s candidacy may be secretly welcomed by Sharon and his foreign friends, who claim that it does not matter who Arafat’s successor is because the Palestinians are simply impossible.

Barghouti’s decision to run drew a reprove from the Fatah leadership, whose candidate is the former PA prime minister Mahmud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen).  He is also the least bad option for the United States.  American interests in the region demand peace and stability, which means a Palestinian state, which entails the existence of a Palestinian leadership that one can do business with.  In the weeks ahead, Washington would be well advised to provide discrete support to Abbas, an aging moderate willing to settle for the two-state solution in line with President Bush’s 2003 Road Map.  But he can win the Palestinian presidency only if he is given public promises of speedy and tangible results that will alleviate the living conditions and economic prospects of ordinary Palestinians.  Such promises demand Mr. Sharon’s willing cooperation, which is unlikely, or else Mr. Bush’s readiness to exert some serious pressure on him, which is long overdue.