The Palestinians: Who — and What — Is Next

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Fenced In: Arafat's compound in Ramallah seen through barbed wire

Beware of statements made in anger. According to White House officials, President Bush decided to call for Yasser Arafat's removal as a last-minute reaction to a brace of suicide bombings in Jerusalem late last week. But while that demand may have expressed the administration's frustration over what it sees as Arafat's creative ambiguity in relation to terrorism, it has also created the improbable scenario of the Palestinian leader upbraiding the president of the United States on the issue of democracy — and being supported by European and moderate Arab leaders. Britain, Washington's closest international ally, joined with its EU partners Tuesday in welcoming much of Bush's speech but criticizing his call for Arafat's ouster, insisting on the right of the Palestinian people to choose their own leader. Similar responses were heard throughout the Arab world.

If anything, President Bush's comments may have done Arafat a favor. The Palestinian leader has called for a presidential election in January, and top aide Nabil Shaath told the media Wednesday that Arafat would definitely be a candidate. Bush's attack, which in Palestinian eyes aligns the U.S. intimately with Ariel Sharon, will make it even more difficult for any challenger to Arafat's regime. Arafat won't lose a national election, especially now, and so ousting him will depend on the ability of Arab leaders, working behind the scenes, to get him to stand down.

Who's next?

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Even in the unlikely event that Arafat chose to retire, the menu of likely successors, if chosen democratically, is hardly palatable to Washington. The most popular current Palestinian leaders, after Arafat, are Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah chief currently in an Israeli prison for his role in directing the Tanzim militias in this intifada, and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the blind spiritual leader of Hamas. The moderate negotiators from Arafat's inner circle such as Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qurei (a.k.a. Abu Ala) are aging and in ill health, and their intimate involvement in the failed Oslo process has made them magnets for considerable Palestinian rage. The CIA-vetted security chiefs favored by Washington, Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, are equally tainted by their role as the gendarmes of Arafat's corrupt administration — never mind the political kiss-of-death that comes with implicit U.S. endorsement.

Democratizing the PA, moreover, requires — as President Bush insisted — devolving power to the legislature, and new legislative elections are likely to reflect the views of an electorate considerably less inclined than Arafat is to accept U.S. and Israeli terms for peace. Even more so the local elections scheduled for December, since those are contested by Hamas, which boycotts "national" elections because it refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. If statehood is made conditional on the emergence of a Palestinian leadership acceptable to Washington, then the "political horizon" Washington had hoped to establish through Bush's speech may be too distant to have any meaningful impact on the current standoff.

An Arab Switzerland

President Bush's positions demoralized European and Arab diplomats engaged in efforts to revive the peace process — and even the Israeli peace camp. All were looking to the U.S. to establish a political solution based on the 1967 borders. That, they felt, would be the carrot Palestinian leaders could offer to their constituents: End violence now, and we'll have our own Palestinian state. Bush did clearly say that Israel would have to end its occupation of territories conquered in 1967. But he did not address how the Palestinians could begin the necessary reforms while the Israeli military has everyone in the West Bank on lockdown. It's hard to create a democratic society (or even perform basic services like getting the trash picked up) when the tanks of an occupying army are rolling through the streets.

The Israeli military isn't going anywhere as long as Palestinian attacks continue, and the organizations mounting those attacks have signaled they have no plans to change their ways. The promise that if the Palestinians would suddenly become a peaceful, liberal democratic society they would get a "provisional" statehood in 42 percent of the West Bank isn't likely to bring a halt to the attacks either. As one British journalist tartly put it, Bush seemed to be saying there would be no state for the Palestinians until they became "the Switzerland of the Levant."

Where do we go from here?

Progress towards the political solution outlined by the White House depends, right now, on a security mechanism that keeps Israel free from Palestinian suicide bombers and keeps Palestinian society free of Israeli reoccupation. Most observers agree that the Israelis and Palestinians, left to their own devices, are unlikely to achieve such a mechanism. And there was no indication, either in the speech, or from administration officials spinning it afterward, that Washington has any new ideas on breaking the Palestinians and Israelis out of the current patterns of violence. Indeed, both Arab and Israeli commentators took the President's speech as an endorsement of Israel's latest West Bank offensive.

Some analysts have even suggested that the position outlined in the speech signifies that President Bush has, in fact, washed his hands of any short-term intervention in the crisis, no matter how desperate the appeals from Arab and European capitals. But the true test of his administration's intentions will be its response, if any, to the violence on the ground that looks set to escalate in the weeks ahead.