When Yasser Arafat left the West Bank town of Ramallah, it brought to an end a long period of isolation. For two and a half years he has been confined to his half-ruined compound by Israeli forces.
The man who symbolises his people’s struggle for statehood tried to make his exit from the Middle East as dignified as possible. But it is difficult to escape predictions of political unrest as the Palestinian strongman is pictured around the world, weak and frail. For the moment he has given temporary power to two individuals – Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, who will run day-to-day affairs and former PM Mahmoud Abbas, who will take care of the PLO. Arafat will remain Palestinian president and officials publicly insist there will be no problems while he is absent. But the veteran guerrilla fighter has not groomed anyone as his successor and to many in the West Bank and Gaza Strip he is simply irreplaceable. That has not stopped younger radicals from accusing Arafat’s administration of corruption and cronyism. The president has also lost influence in many Western countries. Diplomats say Arafat is just not a man to do business with. But the urgent airlift via Jordan to France shows he does have friends on the international stage. Paris has maintained close ties to the Palestinian leader, arguing that he still has a central role to play in any Middle East peace deal.