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This is what Yasser Arafat has done to the people he has led and exploited for so many years: Because he refused to take steps that could have led toward a stable society, his incapacitating illness has left a vacuum in Palestinian leadership, threatening to drag an already enfeebled society into chaos.

The comparison with Israel is startling and revealing. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for reaching out to the Palestinians, yet life in his democratic nation proceeded normally, even under the siege of suicide bombers and other terrorists.

But as the 75-year-old Arafat falls victim to the predictable infirmities of old age, his government structure teeters on collapse. Why? Because whenever Arafat had to choose between himself and his people, Arafat won. He is to Anwar Sadat, a real leader, as Boss Tweed is to George Washington.

Arafat has left the Palestinians no structure, no legacy and no hope. His people are suffering in large part because Yasser Arafat was their unchallenged leader. His handprints are all over their plight.

The beauty of life is that there is always another chance to get it right. With Arafat's death -- be it in the next few days, months or years -- Palestinians can try to find a leader who is committed to achieving a just peace with Israel. The grind of Palestinian reality, as Arafat helped to shape it, makes that difficult, but only Palestinians can make this happen. In that regard, they control their fate. They could make peace more likely.

Peace is what most Israelis want, and if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not lead them in that direction, their democracy allows them to find a leader who will. Indeed, they had that in Ehud Barak, who offered Arafat a deal that a new Palestinian leader may never see the like of again. But all Barak had was Arafat. In exchange for a generous peace plan that would have created a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and all of Gaza, along with sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the old terrorist unleashed the Intifada, in which hundreds of innocent Israelis were murdered and the prospects of a better life for Palestinians improved not a bit.

That could change if Palestinians can figure out how to organize their own affairs. With someone new -- someone better -- for Israel to deal with, the future is an unlimited place. At a minimum, it could be better than the past.

But Palestinians need more than a decent leader. They need a system of government that is devoted to the long-term interests of the people it serves, one that no longer imprisons them in a dead-end existence with no expectation of improvement.

Whether they can achieve that is, at best, uncertain. What is known without a doubt is that they never will with Arafat as their leader.

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