The man who essentially created the Palestinian nation and put its cause at the center of world attention will leave his people a political culture in which the only constants are violence and corruption. As Barry Rubin wrote recently in Arafat's End, "Having refused to create viable institutions or to name a successor for so long, the result [of Arafat's death] may be chaos." Without a successor or political institutions—like regular, free elections; an independent judiciary; and checks on executive power—to create and sustain political authority, the upcoming struggle for leadership will consist largely of various groups and factions vying with each other to establish supremacy. They will be judged largely according to how forcefully they are capable of warring against the common enemy: Israel. It is a variety of civil war in which the armed groups will be killing Israelis while they are in fact fighting each other.
I think that pretty well encapsulates the tragedy of Arafat: a man who dedicated his life to achieving a state for the Palestinian people, but who ultimately couldn't close the deal.
I'm really not looking forward to the spate of sanctimonious op-eds which will accompany Arafat's passing. Yes, it's true he was a terrorist, but so are many of those whom he fought. I certainly don't approve of or defend Arafat's terrorism, but like Israel's own founders, Arafat used the tools available to him, and I simply cannot stomach the indignation of those who condemn him while preposterously praising the war criminal Sharon as a hard-nosed leader and statesman.
No one should make the mistake, as I'm sure many will, of conflating Arafat's Palestinian nationalism with bin Laden's hyper-revanchist jihadism. The PLO, and Arafat's al Fatah faction which assumed PLO leadership in 1969, were nationalist movements inspired by Nasserism. The Palestinian struggle did not take on a significant religious aspect until the first intifada in 1987 and the rise of Hamas in the Occupied Territories. It's worth pointing out that Hamas was aided in its infancy by the Israeli government, which was hoping to create an Islamist alternative to the PLO which could undercut Arafat's authority. In this, the Israeli government was successful. Needless to say, there were some unintended consequences.
It's encouraging that Arafat's impending end seems at a glance to be unifying Palestinian factions in observance. There are indications that this solidarity could lead to elections and real reform. Moderates Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia have taken control of the PLO and PA, respectively, and from what I've read, both seem genuinely dedicated to creating viable, accountable Palestinian political institutions. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyyeh has called for "formation of a united national leadership or a high Palestinian authority based on a political program and to prepare for Palestinian general elections," the first time that Hamas has ever done so. I'm taking these as signs that Smith's darker predictions may not come to pass.
Arafat's legacy is complex. His unwillingness to share power or support reforms in the PA has had extremely negative consequences for the Palestinians, not least in providing Israel an excuse not to negotiate. But Arafat is a man who would not quit, and it's hard to imagine how the Palestinian people could have come this far without him. Inasmuch as his leadership and charisma held the movement together during the toughest times, his passing ironically may prove to be a decisive event in the eventual creation of the Palestinian State.