World faces a Mideast minus Arafat

Hope for progress toward peace in the region is tempered by a Palestinian power vacuum.

The Middle East and the international community are grappling solemnly with the prospect of a region minus Yasser Arafat, the man who has dominated Palestinian politics for the past 36 years.

But there are also expressions by some that the absence of Mr. Arafat could somehow reshuffle the deck of the stalled Middle East peace process and lead to a revival of negotiations, especially since both Israel and the United States cast the Palestinian leader as the main obstacle to peace.

The US may also have a chance to reshape a conflict that has come to define Muslim frustrations with US policy in the Middle East.

"This may open an opportunity to resume the negotiations," says Hala Mustafa, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo. But the picture is not at all simple. In order for there to be talks, Mr. Arafat's successor will first have to establish himself as the new Palestinian leader, a tall order by all accounts.

Israeli and Palestinian eyes will now be turning to the Bush administration to see how it handles the Palestinian transition. If the moderate former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, emerges as new leader and stabilizes his rule, says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the US should try to help him.

"There will be a need for pressure on both sides in a much more serious way than we have seen in the past to get back to the road map," the international peace blueprint that calls for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Mr. Arafat was rejected by the US and Israel as a partner because of his alleged ties to terrorism and refusal to make reforms and crack down on armed groups. "With Arafat out of the picture I think the US will try to revive the road map" Ms. Mustafa says.

Gabi Sheffer, a Hebrew University political scientist, agrees. "There is now a possibility of a better atmosphere and further moves." But he stresses, in the near term Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to adhere to his approach of unilateralism - shunning a Palestinian partner until after his plan for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is implemented. "Later on, Sharon might go ahead and probably implement some of the road map," he says.

Arafat's illness coincides with President Bush's election victory, and there were calls in the Arab world Thursday for the US to relaunch peace talks at the start of the second Bush term. "We hope Bush will live up to his commitments, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will help everybody," said an official in the United Arab Emirates who asked not to be named.

Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister and a possible successor, wrote to Bush that, "Your leadership for a second term provides an excellent opportunity. Now is the time for the US to take a strong and more active lead in resolving the conflict."

But the big question in the view of the analysts is whether a successor to Arafat will be able to establish himself solidly as the new leader in a climate where lawlessness and localized rule by armed groups is already prevalent. If that fails, they say, prospects for moves toward peace are bleak.

"We cannot be sure the leaders of armed groups and Islamist groups will subject themselves to a new leader," says Mustafa. "If the new leadership is not strong enough, there will be disorder. If there is no strong leadership capable of unifying and dealing decisively with the security disorder, I think the whole scene will be one of turmoil."

"Hamas will expect more political power than before," she continues. "They will want to have a real say in Gaza issues at least. They could mobilize masses easily and could resort to armed action so they have to be put in the political calculations."

In the view of Palestinian analyst Said Ghazali, whether a successor will succeed will depend largely on Israeli policies. "The Palestinians and Israelis are at a crossroads. Going back to peace talks is possible if it is encouraged by Israel and the US," he says.

To facilitate the stability of any succession, he says, Israel should stop military incursions in Palestinian areas and assassinations of Palestinian militants and ease its regimen of strictures of movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "But is Israel willing to do this?" he asks.

Legally, there is a procedure for succession. The speaker of the parliament, Rawhi Fatouh, is to take over as president of the Palestinian Authority for a period of 60 days during which elections are to be held. In practice, however, elections might not be held because Israel has thus far opposed them. Moreover, Mr. Fatouh is seen as playing no more than a symbolic role because he lacks a political base and is a virtual unknown. The two most prominent figures for taking on powers now are Mr. Abbas, the former prime minister and secretary general of the PLO executive committee, and Mr. Qurei, the current prime minister.

If Abbas becomes the prime minister, he will prove no more flexible than Arafat in the short term, Mr. Ghazali says. "While he establishes himself, he does not want to look like he is making compromises. If they want a collaborator, Abbas is not the right guy."

In Ghazali's view, the United States was partly responsible for the collapse of the road map in 2003 because it did not press Israel to take the above steps and to make a meaningful release of Palestinian prisoners. "Bush forgot about his own road map. Maybe the death of Arafat will serve as an alarm clock for him," he says. "I don't think he will be willing to pressure Israel because he has never done so. The pressure will be on the Palestinians."

The Bush administration had already ceased dealing with Arafat and had demanded new Palestinian leadership - a demand the Palestinians had acknowledged by creating the post of prime minister - so Arafat's absence could be the opportunity for the Bush administration to get back into the Israeli-Palestinian process.

Some analysts, like Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, say they expect a "messy period" of infighting among Palestinians that won't be conducive to international action.

But others see an opportunity for Bush to seize the moment to extend his call for democracy in the Middle East to the Palestinian arena. Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York, says Bush should step forward and press for democratic elections to deliver new leadership for Gaza, where Israel is committed to a pullout.

"That would deliver a leadership that is acceptable to the US, Israel, and the Palestinians, and could get the president back into the process recognized by the road map," Mr. Cohen says.

At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Bush referred to a June 2002 Rose Garden speech in which he called for a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. Cohen says that Bush now has before him the way to the first part of what he called for in that speech - new Palestinian leadership. So, he says, he should now seize the moment to follow through on the "second part of the speech," which called for international action with both Israelis and Palestinians to arrive at a peace settlement and a Palestinian state.

Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.

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