What Next After Arafat?

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Support: Palestinians hold posters of Arafat during a rally in Hebron

The epic irony of Yasser Arafat's final hours or days is the growing sense that he may facilitate, by his death, what he failed to achieve in the course of his storied life. As recently as a week ago, Palestinian statehood had seemed like nothing more than an abstract wish for the foreseeable future; now, suddenly, with the Palestinian leader reportedly in a terminal coma, Palestinian statehood is once again being discussed in the realm of the possible. It's not simply Arafat's passing from the scene that has enabled the shift. The Bush administration is facing rising pressure from its Iraq and war-on-terror allies to forcefully restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the argument being that without a fair solution to the conflict — the single most important source of Muslim rage against the U.S. — the West can make no political headway against al-Qaeda. Until now, the stock response from Washington has been to insist that there can be no meaningful negotiations over a two-state solution as long as Arafat held the levers of power in the Palestinian national movement.

Plainly, however, whatever role Arafat may have played over the years in both facilitating and/or sabotaging negotiations has come to an end, forcing all sides to reappraise their next move. For the Israelis, there are immediate security questions such as where Arafat will be buried — he wants to be interred on the Jerusalem hilltop known by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, but Israel is determined to prevent such a symbolic reaffirmation of Palestinian nationalist claims on the holiest piece of real estate in the Holy City; instead, they'll hope to seem him buried in Gaza. Israeli security chiefs want to avoid provoking a Palestinian nation in mourning or to be seen as interfering in any succession struggle. For Israel's political echelon, however, the challenge is more complex. Israeli politicians are suddenly questioning the relevance of Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Even within Sharon's government, some are now arguing that with Arafat gone, so is the argument that there is no Palestinian peace partner, and the Gaza pullout can now be negotiated and coordinated with the Palestinian leadership.

But Arafat's passing brings on a more acute political problem for Sharon. Although the Israeli prime minister has 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, he may have won a pyrrhic victory. Sharon strategic goal, after all, has been not to revive President Bush's roadmap, but to avoid it, instead pursuing a unilateral redrawing of boundaries (the Gaza pullout) that would strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank and remove any pressure to negotiate a permanent two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership. And the anti-Arafat consensus he reached with the Bush administration had, in every meaningful sense, taken the roadmap off the table — as Sharon's top political aide Dov Weisglass put it in a recent interview, the Gaza plan was designed to "remove indefinitely from our agenda" the question of a Palestinian state.

'Road Map' Revived

But a White House freed of the constraints of a tough reelection battle and under mounting pressure to restore the peace process may be less inclined than previously to indulge any effort by Sharon to evade a resumption of the roadmap process. The Bush White House indicated Thursday that a second term represents a "new opportunity to move forward on the 'road map' and get to the two-state vision that the President outlined," and Arafat's departure make it considerably easier for Washington to demand that Israel resume a process with the Palestinians aimed at achieving a peace agreement that cedes not only Gaza, but also most of the West Bank, to a Palestinian state.

Sharon will still have some leeway in demanding that a new Palestinian leadership proves its intent to clamp down on terrorism. But if the leadership replacing Arafat is dominated by the likes of such recognized moderates as former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas the Israeli leader will also face pressure to help his Palestinian counterparts cement their authority. The most important first step in this regard may be withdrawing troops and easing the security grip on Palestinian population centers to allow the holding of elections.

Yasser Arafat had three distinct roles in Palestinian politics — president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of the PLO and head of the Fatah organization. It is generally agreed by Palestinian analysts that there will be no new Arafat, in the sense of a single individual who controls so much of Palestinian political life, and a new leadership is likely to be more collective and consultative in nature (a process that can complicate as well as facilitate negotiations). But the overriding concern among the key Palestinian factions is to avoid a chaotic succession struggle that will further weaken their national movement. The basis of a succession of Arafat's PA role, therefore, will be the holding of the first Palestinian legislative and presidential elections in eight years. Following the PA constitution, the speaker of the legislature, Rawhi Fattuh — a marginal figure with no independent power base — will act as president for 60 days, until elections can be held. The strongest candidate in such an election will, in all likelihood, be the nominee of Fatah, which remains the largest single faction. (Hamas is expected to participate in municipal elections and possibly even run for the Palestinian legislature which it previously boycotted, but it is unlikely to field its own presidential candidate.)

Abbas, the Favorite

Current indications are that the man who will replace Arafat as the head of Fatah, and its presidential candidate, will be Mahmoud Abbas, the White House-favored moderate who served a troubled term as Prime Minister before resigning rather than accept the neutered role allowed by Arafat. Abbas, who would govern in concert with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, may be more inclined to compromise and make deals than Arafat has been, but Palestinian politics is more dangerously fractured than ever after the passing of a national leader who stayed in power by navigating his way between many different and conflicting trends. Abbas is unlikely to be openly challenged, but nor will he be allowed to ride roughshod over the agendas of Hamas or the militant rank-and-file of Fatah, with which he has previously clashed. Abbas would most likely seek to revive his previous attempt, with Egyptian backing, to negotiate a "hudna" (cease-fire) among Palestinian factions — a process contemptuously dismissed by the Israeli leadership who demanded an all-out war on Hamas. Right now, there's no sign of any plausible Palestinian leader willing to fulfill that demand. The preference of Abbas, or any other candidate capable of winning election, will be to bring Hamas into a political process, committing them to cease attacks on Israel, contest elections and exercise the share of power they win at the polls. It's unlikely to be a process in which Israelis find comfort.

Even with the popular mandate of an election, the all-important backing of Fatah and diplomatic support from Washington, Abbas and Quereia would in all likelihood provide transitional leadership to the Palestinian national movement. Both men are in their 70s and not in the best of health, and the divergent interest groups in the West Bank and Gaza may limit their ability to cut deals. If anything, their tenure would hold the ring for various younger contenders to stake 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. But if no Palestinian leader will ever recapture the national mystique and symbolic power of Arafat, the next best campaign biography may be to pass the treacherous post-Arafat years outside the fray in an Israeli prison.