American Jews and Muslims reflect differently on the life and leadership of Yasser Arafat, but they agree that following his death, a new era of leadership, one that will unify Palestinians and reinvigorate the peace process, is needed.
Arafat, 75, died last week. For many American Muslims, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority was the pioneer and icon of Palestinian self-determination and independence during years of struggle and violence between Palestinians and Israelis. For American Jews, however, he represented violent opposition to the state of Israel's very existence, and broken promises of peace.
"Nobody can deny that Arafat was an icon and a symbol of the Palestinian struggle," said Nihad Awad, who is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based civil liberties group.
At the same time, some American Jewish leaders assess Arafat's political life as "a tragedy of opportunities missed."
"As much as for some he symbolized Palestinian nationalism, for us he symbolized an unwillingness to recognize the reality of Israel and the need for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace, with tragic consequences for all concerned," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Other Jewish leaders put it more strongly.
"We are thankful to God that an obstacle to peace and a proven murderer is no longer with us," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the national Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America. "He tried to show one face to the United States and our allies, and another face entirely to his own people, who he encouraged to continue their murderous rampages against Jews."
The leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization since 1969 and the Palestinian National Authority since 1996, Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After the award and Rabin's subsequent assassination, however, the peace process collapsed and was never significantly revived.
American Muslims and Jews agree that Arafat's death is the end of an era and, they hope, the beginning of a more peaceful future.
"He did represent a sense of Palestinian independence and national identity that was vibrant in the past," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles.
However, Al-Marayati said, Arafat's abilities and leadership style were not effective in recent years.
"He was still considered a figurehead, and what Palestinians need today is more than a figurehead, they need a taskmaster, they need an administrator, they need someone who can work quickly and effectively with respect to the challenges facing modern Palestinians today," he said.
American pro-Israel groups outlined specific tasks that they said the new Palestinian leader would have to accomplish.
"It is an opportunity for the Palestinian people to find new leadership that is committed to living in peace with Israel, committed to ending terrorism once and for all, ending incitement and investing the Palestinian people's money in improving their own situation rather than in terrorism directed at killing Israelis," said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
American Muslim leaders say that Palestinians will reach their goal of an independent state if new leadership emerges that can unite disparate factions within Palestinian communities.
A new leader "would have to be pragmatic in trying to unify the Palestinians locally and work on a solution that would be equitable to everybody," said CAIR's Awad.
Awad, who is a Palestinian, said such a leader would have to condemn terrorism, whether it is perpetrated by Palestinians or Israelis.
"We can talk about the resistance to the occupation, but we also have to talk about the occupation itself," Awad said.
According to Adrian College political science professor Muqtedar Khan, Arafat never achieved a reputation, especially in the United States, as someone who genuinely opposed terrorism and worked to stop it.
And with the United States likely to continue its role as a broker of any future peace accord between Israel and a Palestinian state, Khan said, Arafat's replacement would have to enjoy credibility in both the United States and the Arab world.
Given that Arafat named no successor, Khan identified the biggest challenge as selecting a leader who has international credibility but also can bring together militant factions of the Palestinian movement, including Hamas, and more moderate Palestinians.
"Israel cannot make peace with a part of the Palestinians, they have to make peace with all of the Palestinians," he said.
MPAC's Al-Marayati said that the best antidote to violence and terrorism would be a democratically-elected Palestinian leader, something that he says would help the Bush administration's broader goal of advancing democracy in the Middle East.
"If we want to promote democracy, this is the perfect time to demonstrate that we are willing to accept the choice of the Palestinian people even if that person's foreign policy might not be in step with the status quo," he said.
American Jewish leaders are watching the process closely in hopes that Arafat's successor will be more effective and proactive with the peace process.
"Yasser Arafat was really unique, because he never missed an opportunity to lose an opportunity," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, referring to peace deals that failed when Arafat ended negotiations.
"It is my hope that his legacy is that people will learn from what mistakes he made, and that his successor will take this opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East," Epstein said.