Arafat is the cement that has held Palestinians together.

As Yasser Arafat lies gravely ill in a Paris hospital, the sense of anger and imminent loss felt by Palestinians and their supporters - Arabs, Muslims and hundreds of millions of others around the world - is profound.

 

Arafat's shameful treatment at the hands of Ariel Sharon and his friends in the west, which must surely have contributed to his condition, will not be forgotten. The unjustified incarceration for the past three years of the democratically elected leader of an oppressed and occupied people is an indelible stain on the record of those who proclaim their faith in democracy while happily propping up assorted despots around the world. Sharon's refusal to grant Arafat dignity in death by denying him burial in Jerusalem symbolises Israel's rejection of both the man and his cause. The west's callousness and indifference towards Arafat has only encouraged Sharon's excesses and nourished his belief that he can act without sanction or restraint.

 

It is vital at such a critical juncture that those who want to see a just Middle East peace grasp the reasons for Arafat's centrality as leader of the Palestinian national movement over four decades, whatever criticisms Palestinians and others might have over this or that issue. The cliches used to describe him - father of the Palestinian people, symbol of their resistance, supreme decision-maker on their behalf - are well-founded.

 

But Arafat's most important role has been twofold: first, to lead the Palestinian people out of the state of political concussion that befell them after the loss of their homeland in 1948; and then to lay the foundations for a resolution of the conflict with Israel, based on a Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

 

Arafat, along with other founder members of the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement Fatah, played a decisive role in recreating the Palestinians' sense of national identity and reconstructing the shattered remnants of Palestinian political society, pulverised and dispersed as a result of the destruction of their homeland.

 

The emergence of Fatah marked the transition of the Palestinian cause from a humanitarian issue of destitute refugees into one of a people who had taken their destiny into their own hands. Fatah soon transformed itself - as it took over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the late 1960s - into the overarching umbrella encompassing all shades of Palestinian opinion, creed and ideology. Indeed, it became synonymous with the Palestinians themselves. Arafat's importance emerges from this sense that he embodies the national spirit not only within Palestine itself, but - crucially - outside Palestine, too, in the larger diaspora where the majority of Palestinians still live.

 

His decision to opt for a peaceful settlement and two-state solution in 1988 was the second vital transition for the Palestinian national movement. From the absolutist aims of "liberating all of Palestine", Arafat pushed through a pragmatic programme for statehood that was both realisable and internationally acceptable. This difficult decision paved the way for a settlement of the conflict with Israel; it was the sine qua non for the peace process launched at Madrid in 1991 - which culminated in the Oslo peace accords of 1993 and the return of the PLO to its national soil.

 

Without Arafat's readiness for a historic compromise - in which the Palestinians agreed to forgo the 77% of their homeland occupied in 1948 in return for a free and independent state in the remaining 23% occupied in 1967 (encompassing the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) - there would never have been a peace process or any prospect for a settlement between Arabs and Jews. This has been ignored by those in the west who have come very late - possibly too late - to endorse the two-state solution, and Arafat's readiness to stake everything in pursuit of this goal is rarely acknowledged.

 

By formally accepting Israel within the 1948 borders, Arafat demonstrated not only his political courage but his ability to carry the majority of his people with him. Arafat's election by a large majority in 1996 still represents the most important experiment in democracy in the Arab world. Indeed, he remains the only Arab leader to have been so elected. His success has been in capturing the national spirit and a certain instinct for what Palestinians will or will not accept. This served him well when faced with the confused and incomplete offers floated at Camp David in 2000.

 

But his significance goes beyond that of standing at the point of intersection between the various Palestinian national trends and geographic constituencies. Arafat represents the national cement that has helped the Palestinians maintain a sense of identity and common purpose, despite 37 years of military occupation and the devastation of their homeland, across geographic and social and political boundaries.

 

Ariel Sharon, who tried to crush Arafat and the PLO on the streets of Beirut 22 years ago, has long known this. By attempting to make Arafat irrelevant he has sought not only to bypass him politically, but to destroy him as the underpinning of the Palestinian national movement. While Arafat has always represented both the Palestinian diaspora as well as those living under occupation - and therefore has had the authority to reach a compromise settlement with genuine national credibility - no local leaders in the West Bank or Gaza command anything like that kind of constituency. With Arafat out of the way, Sharon knows that the Palestinian movement risks coming apart at the seams and falling into itsdisparate and possibly conflicting parts. With Arafat off the scene, not only will there be no effective Palestinian interlocutor, but the chances of reaching a lasting settlement based on partition along the 1967 borders are likely to disappear.

 

Despite Sharon's talk of a Palestinian state, it is evident that he is determined to avoid any such thing or any significant withdrawal from the vast bulk of the occupied territories, as was made clear by his senior adviser Dov Weisglass last month. With his uncontested legitimacy and mandate, Arafat has been the only credible partner for a sustainable two-state solution. It may be worth recalling that Sharon has threatened to eliminate him on more than one occasion, having told President Bush last April that he could no longer guarantee Arafat's safety. Under any circumstances, Arafat's elimination is going to bring Sharon closer to his goal of destroying the very basis for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

 

For the Palestinians, the only way to prevent the imposition of the kind of minimalist deals with local leaders in the territories that Israel has always sought is to rebuild political organisation among the Palestinian majority in the diaspora, notably in the refugee camps. The Palestinian movement first emerged, after all, not because of occupation, but out of dispossession. It is vital for the west to understand that only leaders who can legitimately speak on behalf of all sections of the Palestinian people will be able to deliver any kind of viable settlement in the long term.