Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The life-and-death consequences of the Middle East began reverberating the moment Yasser Arafat became critically ill. Will Mr. Arafat’s death mean the dawn of a new era in Middle East peace, as many wish?

It is certain that a major obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will have been removed, for Mr. Arafat never managed to rise above his terrorist origins and proved a miserably poor leader for his fellow Palestinians.

Mr. Arafat’s legacy, if it can be called such, has been to put the Palestinian cause on the map. The terrorist groups he has headed, however, Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, accomplished this goal through the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians and children, and through the first and second Palestinian intifadas, which pitched rock-throwing Palestinian children against Israeli military forces.

The Palestinian people regard Mr. Arafat as an icon, the only leader they have ever known. Yet, as the president of the Palestinian Authority he proved incapable of moving their cause beyond rebellion to statehood, thus giving rise to the adage that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” He will leave the Palestinian Authority impoverished, politically divided and beset by violence and corruption.

Mr. Arafat managed to walk away from the best deal the Palestinians had ever been offered by Israelis at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Those who castigate the Bush administration for lacking engagement in the Middle East peace process should recall that then-President Clinton placed the full weight and prestige of his presidency behind the Camp David agreement. It would in effect have produced a Palestinian state, but was rejected by Mr. Arafat — much to Mr. Clinton’s bitter disappointment.

Since then, the Bush administration has wisely turned down Mr. Arafat as an interlocutor for peace, and insisted that new Palestinian leadership is necessary for any real peace plan. Which is why there is now hope in the air.

But there is also plenty of reason for caution. While two more moderate leaders, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, have been appointed to fill Mr. Arafat’s various positions until elections for the presidency can be held, it is doubtful that Palestinians would accept any candidate that has the approval of the United States and Israel.

A struggle for power is already taking place behind the scenes, between the old guard of the PLO and a new generation that has grown up in the West Bank and Gaza. Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian leader, accused his aides on Al Jazeera television of unseemly maneuvering and trying to “bury Arafat while he is still alive.” This internal power struggle could take years to resolve before someone consolidates real power. According to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, within Fatah alone, at least five major factions, three separate institutions and 14 different security agencies are jockeying for position.

In fact, the next Palestinian leader may be no more inclined to accept the need to seek compromise with Israel than Mr. Arafat has been. For one thing, the terrorist group Hamas, which, like the Irish Republican Army, has a political front organization, has already made a bid for power with a proposal for a coalition presidency, including all major militant factions.

Were groups like Hamas to put up a candidate for president they could do well in an election. In addition to producing suicide bombers, Hamas also works on social issues, and has thereby acquired popularity among Palestinians. Hamas is not the kind of partner in peace Israel has been waiting for.

In the coming days, weeks and months, Palestinians will have to decide who their leaders are. If enough Palestinians want peace and a better future for their children, we could see progress on a political settlement. This is far from a given, however. One thing is for sure, though: The Palestinians would be wise to choose a leader who cares more about his people than about clinging to power at all costs.

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