When important people die it is customary to remark that a chapter has been closed in the life of the collective they led and within which they acted. In many cases this is an empty phrase; in Yasser Arafat’s case it is precise. For better or for worse, the fate of the Palestinian people was embodied in him. Because so many things were dependent on him, his death creates a new reality.
Arafat leaves behind a Palestinian people embroiled in an armed intifada, with a weak Palestinian Authority, chaos in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas gaining strength and Fatah wracked with dissent. But he also leaves Palestinians with international standing, general recognition of the necessity of solving their problem, a bureaucratic establishment built in the territories in recent years in anticipation of statehood, and a readiness–even on the Israeli right–to acquiesce to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Arafat agreed, albeit with many reservations, to the Clinton Plan of January 2001 and without reservations to the Quartet’s roadmap. He bequeaths those understandings to the leadership that will replace him, which accordingly will not have to confront the need to break any political taboos. Recognition of Israel, agreement on a Palestinian state within borders based on the 1967 lines, a readiness to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Jewish quarter of the Old City and the Western Wall–all these can now be converted into assets by a Palestinian leadership that seeks peace.
Arafat–the statesman and the terrorist, the man who came to the UN General Assembly with a gun and an olive branch, who spoke of martyrs and of jihad but also of the peace of the brave–provided the ultimate legitimacy to the Palestinians, even to those who did not support him and to Islamic extremists who resolutely opposed him. He did not use his authority to make peace, but his followers can exploit the political concessions he made when they feel strong enough to lead a dramatic new departure.
Israel will be making a terrible mistake if it stands idly by and waits to see how Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei) and their associates deal with the new reality. If it has any interest in strengthening the pragmatic Palestinian camp it must start talking as early as possible with the Palestinian Authority about the planned withdrawal from Gaza; it must return to the negotiating table and begin to implement the roadmap. Ceasing targeted killings, reducing roadblocks, easing the life of Palestinians, releasing prisoners–all these acts will strengthen the new leadership without compromising their status. Sharon is well aware of this; if he didn’t understand it on his own, he was enlightened by the IDF chief of staff, who didn’t hide his view on the way we failed to capitalize on Abu Mazen’s tenure as prime minister.
The Bush administration, which has high regard for Abu Mazen and an interest in his success, must now update the roadmap and reinvigorate it. It makes no sense for everyone to swear by the roadmap, which speaks of a final status agreement in 2005, but for President Bush to officially announce that that date is not realistic. An agreed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must be integrated immediately into the roadmap, and a new and realistic timetable established, in order for the two sides to return to the negotiating table and complete the task that was interrupted at Taba in January 2001. The goal is an agreement modeled after the Clinton Plan, the Bush vision and the Geneva accord.