Who Will Lead Them Now?

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Just a few months after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo peace accord in 1993, Yasser Arafat lamented, as a man without a country, that even his final resting place was uncertain. "Can you imagine what it means to be a Palestinian?" he asked TIME. "I don't know where I am to be buried." He had always hoped it would be in a Jerusalem that was the capital of the state of Palestine.

Neither of those wishes came to pass. Arafat was interred last week in a temporary grave at the battered West Bank compound where he spent his final years, imprisoned by Israeli tanks. The closest he came to the Jerusalem holy site that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount was the handfuls of dirt brought from the shrine to cover his casket. Palestinians attached handles to his marble tomb, to be ready for the day they can move it to the capital of their dreams.

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After Arafat, might that dream be closer? For all the expressions of Palestinian grief as his body was returned to Ramallah on Friday, there were also quiet intimations of hope around the world — hope that the death of the unyielding Palestinian leader might bring a fresh opportunity to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the White House, President George W. Bush spoke of an "opening for peace" and offered hints that his second term might usher in a reinvigorated American role. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could not bring himself to mention the name of his old nemesis, he said that "recent events are likely to constitute a turning point in Middle Eastern history." Arab rulers saw reason for encouragement in the moderate cast of emerging Palestinian leaders and said Muslims were ready. As a senior Arab official put it, "If we all step up to the plate, we are in business again."

Yet a host of obstacles that have wrecked previous opportunities lie in the way. The chaotic tears and gunfire that accompanied Arafat to his Ramallah grave were emblematic of the conflicted, dangerous void he leaves behind. Despite the exhortations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called peace in the Middle East the "single most pressing challenge in the world today," Bush came out of a conclave with Blair last week offering no tangible sign — such as the naming of a special envoy or the convening of an international conference — to prove the U.S. was ready to back up its talk of cautious optimism by taking control of the peace process. Sharon indicated Israel would not budge from its policy of shunning contact with the Palestinians until new Palestinian leaders brought terrorism to a halt. And Arafat's successors — four men will take on the titles he alone held — face an uphill struggle just to legitimize their right to rule, much less to back away from Arafat's violent, uncompromising course.

Just which forces take hold — the optimistic or the pessimistic — will start to emerge in the weeks ahead. But already the prospects pit hope against harsh reality.

Palestinian leaders dampened the potential for an immediate political crisis by smoothly reorganizing power in the wake of Arafat's death. A new set of more pragmatic leaders came to the fore. Within hours of Arafat's death, Mahmoud Abbas, 69, the moderate former Prime Minister and longtime No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.), stepped into the top slot as chairman. He shares authority with another Old Guard moderate, current Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, 67, who will continue to run day-to-day government operations. And as Palestinian basic law dictates, Parliament speaker Rauhi Fattuh, 55, a largely powerless functionary, was named caretaker President until elections can be held.

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