The legacy that Arafat left behind is a convoluted mess of revolutionary bravado mixed with moral compromise, all in the name of political survival. Clad in military fatigues and his trademark keffiyeh - - a traditional Palestinian headdress - - Arafat came to embody the Palestinian dream of self-determination.
That dream, however, was severely undermined by Arafat's apparent inability to sacrifice his own personal power and political relevance in the stormy world of Middle East politics. Ironically, now that Arafat is gone, the Palestinians may have a legitimate chance of achieving at least part of Arafat's vision for a unified, self-governing Palestine.
History is critical to understanding Arafat. Born to a middle class merchant in the bustling Arab metropolis of Cairo, Egypt, Arafat spent most of his youth drifting between Egypt and East Jerusalem. At the age of 17, he enrolled at the University of Cairo, where he studied engineering.
Removed from Palestine, he watched with horror as the Zionists reclaimed their holy land following World War II - - with the understanding and empathy of the Western powers. The still-teenage Arafat began smuggling weapons from Egypt into Palestine.
The fight with the Zionists was an overwhelming failure in the eyes of the Arab world. The expiration of the British mandate over Palestine led to the official creation of the Israeli state. 78 percent of what was Palestine became officially recognized as Israel.
A disillusioned Arafat, stationed in Kuwait as a public works engineer, took action. Along with four other militant Palestinians, he formed the first underground cell of the Fatah organization. The guerilla tactics of Arafat's comrades were blunt, brutal and largely ineffective.
That did not deter the Arab world from embracing the bold sweep and dedication of Arafat's men. Their well-publicized exploits motivated an ever-defensive Israel to mount an aggressive offensive. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War saw the remaining 22 percent of Palestine - - East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - - fall under Israeli control.
Despite the defeat, Arafat became the official spokesman and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) based in Jordan. But the organization he headed was sprawling and hard to control. The Jordanian state, which had been harboring Arafat for years, feared his growing power. Arafat was forced to flee to a divided Lebanon.
During this time of turmoil, Arafat modified his take-no-prisoners politics. The armed struggle he had overseen for over a decade was stagnating. Arafat the diplomat replaced Arafat the revolutionary - - or at least that was the goal.
Understanding the limitations of his organization's dogma, Arafat was willing to concede that a doctrine of stages was necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The idea of "revolution till victory" was put on hold as the revolution of compromise began. Slowly, but surely, it happened.
Arafat was the first leader of a national liberation movement to be granted an audience with the United Nations. The Arab world recognized him as the sole legitimate spokesperson of the Palestinian people.
Despite a series of setbacks, some major, Arafat retained control of the PLO, even after his expulsion from Lebanon. In 1988, he made an historic concession by recognizing Israel's existence and endorsing the two-state solution - - an Israeli state and a Palestinian state.
The 1993 Oslo Accords, overseen by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, found former enemies constructing a framework for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A brief handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin secured a Nobel Peace Prize for Arafat.
Where, then, did Arafat's vision begin to blur? Three years following the Oslo Accords, Arafat was elected to represent the Palestinian people with 83 percent of the vote - - an overwhelming mandate.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was set up and put into place. But with the finish line in sight, Arafat succumbed to a far deadlier foe then the Israeli occupation forces: personal pride.
The PLO was corrupt. The economy suffered tremendously under his shaky, nepotistic leadership. The Islamic fundamentalist movement, Hamas and the more militant wing of the PLO threatened to usurp his power.
Furthermore, negotiations with Israel stalled, and the settlements on the West Bank doubled in size. To remain relevant, Arafat used the billions he had acquired over the years through fundraising to bribe and cajole those around him.
Yet, despite years of incompetence, President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak commenced final status negotiations with him. Essentially, Arafat was offered almost everything he desired as leader of the Palestinians - - nearly all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza and shared control of the Temple Mount.
Inexplicably, Arafat balked at the offer, claiming that the Israelis needed to offer the right of return for former refugees, an untenable provision. Arafat had failed his people, knowing full well that if the offer was accepted he would most likely lose control of the Palestinian Authority.
The following four years saw the Palestinian-Israeli conflict decay into further chaos. 3,500 Palestinian lives and 1,000 Israeli lives have been lost, with more sure to follow.
In the months prior to his death, Arafat, confined to a military compound, barely held onto power, a shadow of the man he once was. His passing, though mourned by his people, is rightly viewed as an opening towards a possible peace.
Arafat, for all his daring, cunning and diplomacy, had become the biggest obstacle to the free, democratic Palestine he once envisioned. Arafat never completed the passage from terrorist to diplomat. That's now up to his successor.