By and large, Israelis will not mourn Yasser Arafat. But they should take the time now to reflect on how, under his leadership, the Palestinians got where they are–to world recognition, national pride and the brink of statehood, but also to the depths of the present brutal conflict, with its accompanying humiliation and impoverishment. Arafat, after all, bore a great deal of responsibility for both situations. By the same token, his death could precipitate a major move in either direction: toward reconciliation or toward deterioration; toward great opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis, or great turmoil.
Palestine is entering what can be described as a "revolutionary situation". Arafat’s death is liable to release a host of power dynamics that were nurtured beneath the surface for years. It is virtually impossible to predict with any certainty who, if anyone, will come out on top. There is no precedent for an orderly transfer of national authority; Arafat himself only succeeded the Palestinian people’s first leader, Haj Amin al Husseini, after a power hiatus of 20 years.
In a worst-case scenario parts of Palestine will resemble Somalia, with Hamas ruling most of Gaza, Fatah dissidents controlling the northern West Bank, and the mainstream PLO in Ramallah. In the most optimistic scenario, the Fatah old guard under Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qurei (Aba Ala) will consolidate their rule and project stability and moderation.
Because so much speculation centers on this second possibility, let us focus on it, if only to explore the limits of a positive scenario. For four years I have been writing that none of the three relevant leaders, Arafat, PM Ariel Sharon and President Bush, has a realistic strategy for peace or even ending the violence. Is that about to change?
In the Palestinian arena, neither Abu Mazen nor Abu Ala has the charisma, the drive, the "father of his country" aura or the ruthlessness, deceit, and inclination to violence that Arafat had. They have a far better management style, and they have infinitely more international sympathy than Arafat in his final years, but they don’t have his grassroots support. They face the formidable immediate challenge of conciliating the Fatah young guard, building alliances with the security chiefs, imposing a ceasefire on Hamas and Fatah dissidents, and organizing elections. Internal Palestinian criticism and opposition could easily constrain their ability to make tough decisions regarding what Abu Mazen has demonstrated he believes in: ending the armed intifada, stopping the violence and returning to the peace process.
But Sharon is skeptical regarding a peace process. He has never voted for any of Israel’s peace treaties and breakthroughs; he appears to harbor doubts regarding peace with Arabs in general. He initiated the unilateral disengagement plan in part to circumvent a peace process. Hence he will probably do everything to avoid a genuine new negotiating dynamic. Only if pressured by Bush and Israeli and international public opinion might he cooperate with a moderate Palestinian leadership in making disengagement work. Nor will he easily offer concessions to encourage a new Palestinian leadership unless it first delivers on security. This has been his consistent policy; it already helped bring about the downfall of Abu Mazen’s government in mid-2003.
President Bush’s Middle East agenda is dominated by Iraq and Iran (the WMD threat); the Israeli-Palestinian dispute comes a distant third. Moreover, Bush’s attitude toward the roadmap thus far has been cynical: when it boosts his plans for Iraq or helps out British PM Tony Blair he is prepared to go through the motions of supporting it, but little more. For now, all he is prepared to endorse is Palestinian elections. If Bush is impressed with the new Palestinian leadership, he will probably suggest that it cooperate with disengagement, which he supports, by restoring security in Gaza, and will promise to get back to the peace process next fall, after disengagement. The other quartet partners, spearheaded by Blair, may extract some rhetorical support from Bush concerning the roadmap and an international conference, but little by way of action.
Herein lies the necessity to realistically address the expectations for a Palestinian best-case scenario. Because of Palestinian weakness and Bush and Sharon’s reluctance, a return to the roadmap process is currently not a viable option; a major international effort to make disengagement work is much more realistic. This requires Sharon to agree to a coordinated effort. The US and the Quartet must give the Palestinians assurances that beyond the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank lie, if not a peace process, then additional Israeli withdrawals and dismantling of settlements elsewhere on the West Bank. And the new Palestinian leadership must be persuaded to see in disengagement an opportunity rather than a conspiracy.
This, then, is the most we can expect in the coming year from a best-case scenario. And reality, as we know, rarely approximates the best case.