- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Policy-makers see an opportunity for renewed progress toward peace in the Middle East after Yasser Arafat’s death, but analysts warned yesterday that it will be hard for any new leader to accept a less generous deal than what Mr. Arafat rejected.

The biggest unknown is what to expect from the Islamist movement Hamas, which is heavily entrenched in the Palestinian territories and long has pursued its agenda independent of Mr. Arafat.

One international security official in the region said the potential existed for civil war among the Palestinians, but added that much depended “on the conviction” of the new Palestinian leadership.

Mr. Arafat, the terrorist-turned-president who became the symbol of the Palestinian cause, died yesterday at 75 after days of lying comatose in a Paris hospital.

“We wonder if his death will give a chance for life — a renewal of a shattered partnership after four years of terror and violence,” said David Makovsky, director of the Middle East Peace Process project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.



But, he cautioned, “I think we should avoid ‘all-or-nothing’ traps, namely to believe we are going to solve this 100-year conflict tomorrow morning.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that Mr. Arafat’s death would not affect his country’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

But, he said, “The latest events might be a historic turning point.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom went further, saying, “We are at the dawn of a new era in the Middle East — an era which carries the possibility and the hope — of real change for the better. We hope that the end of the Arafat era will also be the end of the era of terror.”

But Israel cannot be considered a bystander when it comes to ensuring that there is not just a smooth transition of power, but that there is a larger environment conducive to a pragmatic leadership, said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at United States Institute for Peace.

“This leadership struggle is not taking place in a vacuum. The fate of the Palestinian national movement lies first and foremost with the Palestinians, but Israel is a close second and the U.S. a very close third,” Mr. Lasensky said.

Carefully phrased statements from the Bush administration called Mr. Arafat’s death a “significant moment” in Palestinian history but focused on the future of the region.

Mr. Bush, the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, repeatedly has cited a need for new Palestinian leadership before there could be progress on Middle East peace.

But he offered no tribute to the late leader in a brief statement after the death announcement from Paris, saying simply, “We express our condolences to the Palestinian people.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was more conciliatory, saying, “We know that, in the eyes of the Palestinian people, Arafat embodied their hopes and dreams for the achievement of an independent Palestinian state.”

Several analysts were encouraged by the election yesterday of former peace negotiator Mahmoud Abbas to replace Mr. Arafat as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has a reputation as a reformer and has said that the militarization of the Palestinians’ four-year-old uprising was a terrible mistake.

“He is someone the Americans can deal with,” Mr. Makovsky said.

“The $64,000 question is if Hamas is going to seek to destroy any hopes for the transitional leadership to strengthen their position by launching a series of attacks that could provoke Israel and undermine this fragile leadership.”

The head of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party has hinted that there is a risk of violence, according to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute .

“The gun Yasser Arafat raised in the days of Arab apostasy, submission, and defeat, in 1965, will be raised [by those Palestinians who] continue to believe that this gun is the way to get rid of this occupation,” Hussein Al-Sheikh said.

Jonathan Lincoln, a senior research associate on Middle East issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Israel is prepared for an outbreak of violence or a bloody power struggle.

“I think [the Israeli military] is on high alert, and there is a plan to go in. They want to keep at least the leadership in Ramallah safe. It is in their interest,” Mr. Lincoln said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in Washington for talks with Mr. Bush today, said last week that reviving the Middle East peace process was the most pressing political challenge facing the world.

Former President George Bush responded in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview that Mr. Blair’s message had been received “loud and clear” in Washington and that Mr. Blair would find in his son a “willing and able partner.”

But although Mr. Arafat’s death and the upcoming elections could provide a new impetus for peace, some cautioned that any new diplomatic effort will be extremely difficult.

“There may be some change in the atmosphere, maybe the level of violence will drop off, but we are still likely to be a long way from an overall settlement,” said William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council member who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

“One of Arafat’s legacies is that it will be very hard for any of his successors to have legitimacy if he accepts much less than what Arafat was ready to accept,” said Mr. Quandt, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Virginia.

In 2000, President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Arafat met at Camp David to negotiate a final settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict based on the Oslo accords reached in 1993.

The negotiations ended in failure with the two sides unable to agree on the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Although Israel has said its offers were generous, Palestinians said the proposal would have left the West Bank divided into numerous small areas of Palestinian sovereignty surrounded by Israeli land.

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