Mideast Braces for Life After Arafat

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Ailing: Arafat poses with aides in Ramallah

Never has Yasser Arafat's centrality to the mythology and the reality of the politics of the Middle East been more apparent than in uncertainty on every front that has accompanied the latest signs of his physical deterioration. One year ago, TIME.com reported exclusively that the aging Palestinian leader is believed to be suffering from stomach cancer, and the announcement Thursday that he is to be transferred to hospital in Paris on Friday underscores his critical condition — Arafat had until now strenuously resisted leaving his embattled compound in Ramallah to seek treatment, suspecting that the Israelis would not allow him to return. (They've said they'll allow him back, but current thinking among the Israeli establishment appears to be that the more likely concern they'll have to face is where Arafat will be buried once he returns.)

While his medical prognosis remains under wraps, the political implications are unmistakable: The man who has for close on four decades been the personification of the Palestinian nationalist movement is slowly — or rapidly, as the case may be — exiting stage left, leaving each of the remaining players to revise their own scripts on the fly. Israeli politicians are suddenly weighing the relevance of their Gaza pullout plan; its security chieftains are planning to do everything possible to avoid provoking a new upsurge in violence in the West Bank and Gaza; senior Palestinian politicians are flocking to Ramallah to hear any pronouncement of an heir by a sick man who has governed as a wily monarch; and the heads of state of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have held frantic late-night phone conversations to coordinate their responses to an anticipated backlash on their own streets directed at their failure to do more for the Palestinians. All this in response to the immediate fate of a man shown by the latest news photograph stripped of his carefully constructed nationalist uniform and instead sporting the powder blue sweat suit and woolen cap of an ailing pensioner being wheeled along the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

Sharon's Plan

For Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, signs of the mortality of the man most Israelis have come to regard as the fount of all evil ought, in abstract, be greeted with satisfaction. If Arafat passes from the scene, Sharon will have outlasted and outwitted his nemesis, prevailing in his generational struggle against Palestinian nationalism even to the extent of undoing Arafat's diplomatic triumphs of the Oslo years. The 75-year-old Palestinian leader had been the most frequent foreign visitor to President Clinton's White House; he's been persona non-grata in Washington since Sharon took the reins. Whereas once Arafat had been treated as the very key to a two-state solution to the conflict, Sharon has managed to define the Palestinian leader as the decisive obstacle to such an outcome. So much so, in fact, that the U.S. had been willing to countenance Sharon's unilateral initiatives, such as his security wall and his proposed withdrawal from Gaza — unilateral actions having been the ultimate taboo of the Oslo process.

Ironically, Arafat's deterioration came at the end of a momentous week for Sharon, in which he'd faced down the naysayers in his own party and prevailed in a parliamentary vote on his Gaza pullout. But across the political spectrum in Israel, there was acknowledgment Thursday that Arafat's passing would profoundly alter the landscape, removing the basic rationale for a unilateral pullout — that there is no Palestinian "partner" for a bilateral process. Even Sharon's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, came out suggesting that the unilateral withdrawal plan be put on hold, suggesting it would be preferable to coordinate an Israeli retreat with a partner on the Palestinian side once the dust has settled on Arafat's succession.

Arafat's passing would also resolve a basic problem facing the next White House, which would be facing growing pressure from important allies to restart the "roadmap" peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and yet intractably committed to the proposition that no negotiations are possible as long as Arafat remains his stranglehold on Palestinian politics. With Arafat out of the picture, there would likely be U.S. pressure on Sharon next year to negotiate directly with the Palestinians not simply over interim steps such as the Gaza withdrawal, but also for a more comprehensive political solution. After all, the "roadmap" commits the U.S. to a viable independent state for the Palestinians, and there's no stretch of the imagination that could confine such an entity to Gaza. Moreover, Sharon's basic argument in selling the Gaza plan to his own base is that it's self-destructive for Israel to continue to rule over Palestinians, and that applies even more to the West Bank whose Palestinian population is more than double that of Gaza.

Sharon's answer to the "roadmap" scenario may be to switch gears and stress that it's not about the man, it's about the plan, and that anyone who succeeds Arafat will be assessed as a negotiating partner by the extent to which he clamps down on militancy and terror attacks. But having worked so hard in the diplomatic sphere to personalize the issue, Israel may find it difficult to convince its backers of the case for holding off on talking to his successor, particularly if the man in charge turns out to be a recognized moderate such as former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

The New Powers

The idea that Arafat is the cause of all problems in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will likely be subjected to a brutal reality check in his wake. The frontrunner to take over Arafat's functions as President of the Palestinian Authority and as leader of the Fatah organization remains Mahmoud Abbas, the White House-favored moderate who served a troubled term as Prime Minister before being driven out by Arafat, but who nonetheless remains close to the ailing leader. But while Abbas may be more inclined to compromise and make deals than Arafat has been, Palestinian politics may be more dangerously fractured than ever after the passing of a national leader who sought to make himself at once representative of many different trends, knowing that his power rested primarily on his ability to navigate between various power centers at home and abroad.

If Abbas is anointed by Arafat in the weeks ahead, it's unlikely that he'll be challenged directly for the top post in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the torch — although it's a good bet that the post of PLO Chairman will go to Farouk Khadoumi, the organization's longtime foreign minister who opposed the Oslo deal and remained in exile in Tunisia. But that post today may be limited largely to representing the Palestinian national movement in foreign forums. Tradition and the Palestinian political culture will require that Abbas be given time to settle into the job, and the often-feared power struggle to succeed Arafat may not be waged openly for months or even years. (Abbas, of course, is 72 years old, and has had surgery for prostate cancer.) But the different power centers within the West Bank and Gaza will retain their interests and their agendas, and it may be those — rather than the "larger than life" personality of Arafat — that come to limit Abbas's ability to cut deals or deliver on security promises. Just because they don't contest his leadership position, there's little reason to believe that either Hamas or the militant grassroots of the Fatah movement will accept Abbas's orders to cease fighting. Abbas, moreover, is from the old guard of PLO operatives that returned with Arafat from Tunis, and that group has faced the ire of the grassroots militants demanding democratic reform and an end to corruption. At this stage, there's little reason to expect Abbas's ascension might end the increasingly vicious infighting within Fatah on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. Nor is there any sign that any new inclination on Abbas's part to compromise with Israel would carry the support of a new generation of Fatah activists. And Abbas, of course, would be a lot weaker than Arafat in terms of his domestic political base.

Given his age, health and political standing, Abbas would likely be a transitional leader. His tenure would be taken as an opportunity by various Young Turks to cement their own claims. Men such as Gaza security chieftain Mohammed Dahlan and his former West Bank counterpart Jibril Rajoub may have their eyes on the prize. But in its most recent survey of Palestinian political opinion, the widely respected Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found the second-most popular leader after Yasser Arafat to be Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, of course, is unlikely to be a contender right now, for the simple reason that he's serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in the current intifada.

It's generally acknowledged that no Palestinian leader will ever recapture the national mystique and symbolic power of Arafat. But spending a few of the politically treacherous post-Arafat years outside the fray in an Israeli prison may prove, in the tradition of Nelson Mandela, to be a compelling campaign biography.