He lived by his wits. With a few disastrous exceptions, he danced nimbly through the labyrinth of Arab politics. While filling his coffers with Arab money, primarily from Gulf oil states, he deftly avoided coming under the thumb of any Middle East regime. His vision was to give life and identity to the Palestinian cause, separate from the auspices of any single Arab state.
One of his worst defeats, however, came at the hands of an Arab country. Alarmed that the PLO was becoming too powerful, in 1970 King Hussein of Jordan sent his troops against the guerrillas, who were using the country as a base to launch attacks on Israel. In a bloody war that Palestinians later called Black September, Hussein's army drove Arafat and his men from Jordan.
The PLO next set up its headquarters in Beirut and fought with Muslims against Christians at the start of Lebanon's civil war. Arafat established a state within a state, wielding more power and controlling more territory than the Lebanese president.
Known by the nom de guerre Abu Amr, he enjoyed a status and aura of authenticity, bestowed on him and the PLO by other Arab countries, affording him a rare and dramatic appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1974, his first trip to the United States.
"Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun," he said, reportedly wearing a pistol on his hip. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."
The olive branch fell, most notably in the summer of 1982, when the Israeli military under the leadership of Sharon, then defense minister, invaded Lebanon and pushed to Beirut.
Sharon was determined to wipe out the PLO and would have liked to kill Arafat, were it not for restraints imposed by the international community. The hawkish former general, much later, claimed that he had his implacable enemy in the sights of an Israeli gun but chose not to shoot.
Arafat regarded Sharon with equal loathing. The guerrilla leader and his men held out against Israeli bombardments for months as they negotiated terms of their evacuation.
After they departed by land and sea from Beirut, hundreds of Palestinians left behind in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were slaughtered by Israel's allies, Lebanese Christian militiamen. An Israeli inquiry found that Sharon was indirectly responsible for the massacre.
The events devastated Arafat. His PLO was shattered and virtually powerless, his guerrillas scattered to eight countries. He became a man without a strategic base of operations, circling the globe on borrowed planes trying to raise money and support.
He continued to run his crippled organization from Tunisia. But a burgeoning Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip grew frustrated with the PLO's distant leadership and took matters into its own hands, launching, in 1987, the first intifada against Israeli occupation.
The next year, Arafat, under heavy Western pressure, was forced to acknowledge at a summit in Algiers the fateful truth: Israel existed as a state. Arafat lost stature among many of his radical followers and a number of Arab governments who, to this day, consider it treason to recognize Israel.
Arafat incurred further political disaster when he aligned himself with Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Palestinian leader saw Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the only Arab leader with the capability and will to militarily confront Israel.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Arafat refused to condemn Hussein or join Arab governments in supporting the U.S.-led coalition that eventually drove Iraqi forces out of the Gulf emirate. Palestinians danced in the streets of Ramallah when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israeli cities.
As Iraqi forces were chased out of Kuwait, Arafat adamantly remained on Hussein's side.
It cost him and his cause dearly. Gulf states cut off his financial lifeline and expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians from their territories. Arafat found himself internationally isolated and in danger of becoming politically irrelevant.
Turning to Talks
His survival skills surfaced once again, and Arafat turned from armed struggle to diplomacy. As many began writing his political obituary, the Palestinian leader saved himself by secretly negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.
In a historic moment, Arafat went to the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, to sign the peace accords with Rabin. He shook hands with his bitter enemy in a gesture of reconciliation that electrified the world.
Suddenly, he was back on top, giving up the gun on his hip and returning from exile to rule in the territories with official U.S. recognition. Arab and American leaders looked around and decided -- like him or not -- there was no one to deal with but Arafat.