"Joncho had a small family," he said. "I belong to a big clan. I have relatives in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, all over."
My friend smiled thinly. "Arafat knows he can't touch me. My family would take revenge. We have guns, too."
There have always been two Yasser Arafats. One was the international Arafat revolutionary performance artist, terrorist pioneer and, in later years, elder statesman. That's the Arafat who appeared at the United Nations with a pistol in his belt, the Arafat who hobnobbed with popes and presidents and won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
International Arafat always has been a master diplomat and astute geopolitician. He realized early that Arab dictators would pay to keep the Palestinian issue alive because it gave them an all-purpose diversion from the disaster they were wreaking on their own societies. He became custodian of the Palestinian grievance for everyone from Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to the Saudi Royal Family, from Libya's Moammar Khadafy to Saddam Hussein.
Arafat also was lucky in his choice of enemies. Third World nationalists do not usually attract much attention just ask the Kurds. But taking on Israel put Arafat in the big leagues. He became a hero to the Soviet bloc and, later, to European "progressives" who never really have seen the need for a Jewish state.
But no matter how many capitals he visited, no matter how many accolades he received, there always was a second Arafat, a neighborhood bully for whom all politics was local and violent.
This Arafat has dominated Palestinian political life for decades for the simplest of reasons: He has always had the most guns.
Local Arafat was, in his prime, a powerful warlord, but his rule was never absolute. There were lines he could not cross. He rarely went after the sons of powerful clans. And he did not alienate the Palestinian mainstream by making peace with Israel.
True, Arafat came close during the Oslo process. But at Camp David in 2000, he pulled back when he saw that his people would not stand for it.
An agreement would have been seen as an act of betrayal, and Arafat did not have enough guns to make it stick.
Instead, he turned the guns on Israel. The intifadeh was an all-or-nothing gamble, and Arafat lost. For the past two years, he has been holed up in a wrecked bunker, surrounded by flunkies, watching himself disappear. But at least he stayed alive.
Arafat may survive his current medical crisis, too. But he is 75, visibly diminished and detached from reality. His coterie will try to keep him propped up, Oz-like, as long as possible. But that won't be for long.
Who will replace Arafat? There are two answers. Western diplomats almost certainly will seize on one Abu or another as their designated statesman. But eventually this figurehead will run up against the local reality that Arafat both fostered and accepted: The majority of Palestinians do not want peace if it requires a compromise with Israel.
Arafat's real heir will be someone who understands this. Like Arafat, he will be the guy with the most guns and the shrewdest sense of where he can use them and what Palestinian red lines he cannot cross without winding up dead.
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