Arafat's death - what comes next ?

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 14-Nov-04 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, front row blue tie first left, Rauhi Fattouh, caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority, behind Qureia on the right side, Mahmoud Abbas, secretary general of the PLO's executive committee, front row second from left, and former Gaza chief security, Mohammed Dahlan, far right, pray next to the grave of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, on the first day of Eid al-Fitr at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah Saturday, Nov. 13, 2004.

The death of Yasser Arafat, a freedom fighter in the eyes of the Palestinians and a terrorist in the eyes of Israel, may bring a greater chance for peace in the region. However, it will not be easy to replace Yasser Arafat. He was a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. The new leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO have a chance to prove their commitment to peace and a genuine interest in finding a reasonable solution for the long-term conflict between Israel and Palestine.

On the other hand, with the emergence of a new leadership in Palestine, Israel’s excuse that Arafat is the main impediment to achieve peace is now gone. Therefore, a political agreement is what the world hopes to see emerging between Prime Minister Sharon's government and the new Palestinian leadership.

Many see an opportunity for a resumption of the long stalled peace process in the conjunction created by the death of Yasser Arafat, the re-election of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon’s policy to disengage from the Gaza Strip. Although it has had a great impact on the Palestinian factions - nationalist or Islamic - the death of Arafat alone will have little or no impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if there is an escalation of violence inside the territories to cover the power vacuum left or if Ariel Sharon's government does not make an effort to rebuild political ties to the PLO.

Despite the official statement on cooperation with the new Palestinian leadership, Ariel Sharon's government has a poor track record in this regard. During Mahmoud Abbas's brief term in office as prime minister in 2003, Israel barely lifted movement restrictions, kept up army assassinations and refrained from a meaningful prisoner release. However, after many decades of mutual attacks, Sharon could face domestic pressure for a conciliatory approach to Qureia and Abbas.

The years of fighting, incursions and the imposed movement restrictions have badly hurt the Israeli economy, and the Palestinian economy is virtually destroyed. The challenge for the new Palestinian leadership will be to alleviate the suffering of the population. This goal will serve as a premise for future actions taken by the PLO concerning Israel.

Yasser Arafat has aggressively guarded his leadership and refused to cultivate a political heir; his refusal to assume responsibility for the political future of his people is now causing great anxiety in the territories and abroad.

Contrary to what many have predicted and expected, there has so far been a smooth succession process. Even though there is stiff competition for power, there have been no violent confrontations between the main Palestinian factions: Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Internal competition is likely to produce disagreements between the Islamists (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) and the nationalists (Fatah). Although Fatah has a long history and it has popular recognition in the West Bank, it is crumbled by personal and opportunist rivalries. Therefore, it faces the risk of dissolving into many small factions. Should this happen, the only winner would be Hamas which would seize the opportunity to strengthen its position at the decision-making level. A violent outburst inside the Palestinian factions would only weaken an unstable situation, thus delaying the emergence of a two-state solution.

After Arafat’s death was officially announced, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rouhi Fattouh, was sworn in as the Palestinian President for a period of sixty days. It is highly unlikely that he will preserve his position and become the permanent leader of the Palestinians. Fattouh is known as one of Arafat's loyalists, while being an unknown figure in the Arab world. In recent years, he served as a mediator: First, between the Palestinian Authority (representing the nationalist line) and Hamas and Islamic Jihad (representing the hard-line Islamists). Then he settled the conflict between Mohammad Dahlan and Yasser Arafat. Fattouh has always been an active player inside Fatah, but without clear aspirations for power and without a role in diplomatic negotiations such as Ahmed Qureia and Abbas. Due to his role inside the Fatah and as Arafat's aid in the PLO, Fattouh could be a bridge between the old guard made up of politicians like Abbas and Qureia and the new guard that comprises younger politicians that are willing to accept Hamas as a partner but is open to a dialogue with Israel, as well.

Within the 60-day period, elections are to be held. However, 60 days is a very short period and because of the massive presence of the Israeli army and frequent curfews in the territories, it would be almost impossible for elections to take place. One option would be a general agreement among the Palestinians to let the Parliament nominate the leader or the collective leadership of the Palestinian people. While both Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia are known as serious and experienced politicians and enjoy international respect, they lack popularity with Arab militants. Both men have insisted that Palestinian interests be acknowledged and respected while showing the willingness to negotiate with Israel and to implement the road-map plan under the Quartet’s supervision.

The role of Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the PLO will be to conduct diplomatic negotiations with Israel while Ahmed Qureia as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority will hold the authority over the Palestinian Authority’s security services and over the ministerial cabinet. Farouk Kaddoumi, known as a hardliner inside Fatah is likely to become the movement's leader. Kaddoumi has led the PLO political department from Tunisia. He has rejected the Oslo Accords and since then has lived outside the territories.

The other candidates are Al-Barghouti, Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. While Al Barghouti is a popular figure with Palestinians, he is currently serving five life sentences on charges of terrorism in an Israeli prison; thus, it is highly unlikely that he will be released. Mohammad Dahlan, the former Gaza chief of security is preferred by the United States and enjoys a certain popularity in the Gaza strip, but has little support in the West Bank. Jibril Rajoub served as Arafat’s security adviser in the West Bank but has only local recognition without a strong political base, thus lacking the popular vote.

The Palestinian leadership under Ahmed Qureia and Abbas negotiated the Oslo Accords in 1993. Israel must now also show the willingness to engage in bilateral negotiations. The dialogue between Arafat and Sharon was futile not only because of the clash between the two men but also because of a general clash between the PLO and the Israeli government. From this point of view, the death of Arafat will bring a small contribution, if at all, to the road map plan.

The Arab states also play an important role in settling the conflict. Several Arab countries are known to fund the Palestinian militant factions. If large sums of money are being used to buy weapons, it does not matter who the Palestinian leader is or how committed he or she may be to the cause of peace; it is hard enough to start a peace process with so much suspicion on both sides, but if suspicion is backed up by armed attacks, there is nothing to start with.

The Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad have publicly voiced their interest in joining a collective leadership. They are thought to bring the needed charisma and the popular vote and thus the legitimacy to the collective Palestinian leadership. It would be a great achievement for the Palestinians to have Hamas and Islamic Jihad as co-partners in any peace plan. However, there is one condition: there must be a ceasefire agreement between these groups and Israel and in time, the disarming of their militias. Without ending their attacks on the Israeli army and Israeli civilians, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will only further complicate the conflict.

The mistakes of the past that have held back the peace process should not be repeated: Israel’s policy of building settlements on the Palestinian land and the policy of Palestinian Islamic groups to respond with terrorist attacks. What the Palestinians need now is a transparent government, not another icon.

Manuela Paraipan is WSN correspondent "Broader Middle East".