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After Arafat - A New Era?


We all hope that a new era of peace is dawning in the Middle East, but those who think the hope is actually about to come true may have to think again.

Ever since the the Israeli-Palestinian peace process foundered in September 2000, with the outbreak of Palestinian violence, politicians and pundits have been searching for a magical aid that would end the impasse and allow the flowering of peace in the Middle East. George Bush, Shimon Peres, Shlomo Ben Ami and many others seem to think that the death of Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat will provide just such a deus ex machina, but there may be little grounds for such optimism. While there are too many unknowns to justify confident prediction of what will happen, we can probably discern what will not happen - real peace will not come any time soon.

Many Israelis and many in the US government developed a personal animus to Arafat, who was blamed for the failure of the peace negotiations as well as for blocking efforts to stop terror. Now that Arafat is gone, it will possible to unite all the security forces under Ahmed Qurei or Mahmoud Abbas or another leader, and perhaps the prospects for reducing terror activity will improve.

However, it is unlikely that Arafat's exit will allow the rapid movement toward peace that is predicted by many. A peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians would have to look very much like the Geneva Accord or the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement or any number of similar documents. That is, Palestinians would need to renounce their claim to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, and Israel would have to withdraw from all or most of the West Bank and Gaza strip, including most of East Jerusalem, with minor border corrections. This was the substance of the agreement proposed by US President Clinton at Taba, which was rejected by the Palestinians. It is doubtful if today Israel would accept such an agreement either.

The basic positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis have not changed. The Palestinians are going to insist on right of return for Palestinian refugees. The Fatah Al-Aqsa brigades have already announced that they would support Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for the post of Chairman of the Palestinian Authority only as long as he continues to support Right of Return. Since return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel would soon establish an Arab majority, and would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, it is unlikely that even a minority of Israelis would agree to peace under those conditions, or would even consider such a position compatible with "peace." Israelis, for their part, are reluctant to make the far-reaching territorial concessions that would be demanded in a peace accord, especially after the experience of the last four years - a nightmare of suicide bombings in public places and constant terror alerts - has demonstrated the dangers of experimenting with concessions to Palestinians as a means of catalyzing peace. Israel is likely to demand that the Palestinian leadership take positive steps to reign-in terror groups by outlawing them and arresting extremists, while Palestinian leaders will try to reach truce agreements with groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah Al-Aqsa martyrs brigades. Ariel Sharon would certainly be unwilling to make the territorial concessions needed to bring about a final peace. Paradoxically, Arafat's death makes it harder for Palestinians to agree to a final peace, because only someone with Arafat's prestige and security in office could dare to sign off on the major concessions that Palestinians would have to make in order to obtain the much sought-after "historic compromise."

Ariel Sharon designed his disengagement plan as a contingent strategy. That is, if the terror continues, then Israel could ignore European and American pressure for a settlement and treat the disengagement as a strategic retreat. If the terror abates, European and American pressure for a settlement would increase. In that case, the disengagement could be viewed as an Israeli concession in the framework of the roadmap for peace. Accordingly, if all goes well, we can be moderately optimistic. Following Palestinian elections, or perhaps even before, Israel and the Palestinians will begin negotiations on a revived peace process. In addition to the Gaza withdrawal, the IDF will withdraw from Palestinian cities and relax the closure. Palestinians will be allowed to enter Israel. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will ensure that there is no revival of terror attacks. Israelis and Palestinians will then hopefully be able to go about their business in a more normal way. At a later stage, Israel will withdraw from a larger portion of the West Bank, and the Palestinians will be able to declare a state with temporary borders. The eventual peace will come not in a dramatic White House ceremony, but in a gradual adaptation of each side to the other. The final stages will not be implemented by Ariel Sharon, but by a more dovish leader, elected when and if the Israeli public again has some confidence that Palestinians mean to live in peace with Israel. Likewise on the Palestinian side, some years will have to pass before the residue of bitterness caused by the occupation, and the old slogans of "revolution until victory" represented by Arafat and his national liberation movement ideology, are replaced by realism and trust. Palestinian political life is still dominated by the same armed groups, the same maximalist liberation ideologies and most of the same people who were in power during the Oslo years. It will be a long time before Palestinians develop the sort of polity that can support a peace settlement.

Even the above modestly optimistic scenario, must be viewed with caution. Many right-wing Israelis have been hoping that with Arafat gone, the unifying force that held Palestinians together would be gone too, and Palestinian society would dissolve into a chaos of opposing interests: refugees against original inhabitants, PLO Tunis against locals, West Bank against Gaza, Islamists against secular movements, clan against clan, city against city. This "hope" might well be realized, but it is doubtful that anyone in Israel will be satisfied with the results. Chaos is likely to increase competition among extremists, resulting in more terror attacks, and it will make Palestinian society even more vulnerable to manipulation by Arab and Muslim states opposed to the peace process, notably Iran and Syria.

The extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have announced that they are interested in promoting unity, but if they sense they are powerful enough, then it will, decidedly, be unity on their own terms, and with them dictating the agenda. These groups are not going to be won over by Israeli concessions, because their goal is to destroy Israel, not to make peace with it, and because peace with Israel would make them irrelevant. Any concessions made by Israel will be interpreted by these groups and their followers as a sign of weakness. They won't be anxious to share in the triumphs of the more moderate PLO, because their goal is to supplant and discredit the current PLO leadership.

In the long run, the power of extremist groups to attract followers will wane if Israel withdraws, if conditions improve substantially, and if the Palestinian leadership undertakes a serious program to counter hate education and incitement. John Maynard Keynes remarked that in the long run we are all dead. However, it is likely that many Israelis and Palestinians, and more to the point, some Palestinian leaders will be dead in the short run if these groups have their way. If the Palestinian Authority were to confront them with force, they might win a Pyrrhic victory. They could defeat the extremists in battle, but they would most likely lose the respect of most Palestinians. The extremists can only be rendered relatively harmless by removing their sources of funding, which now come primarily from Iran, as well as by offering better alternatives to their social and education programs, and to their political vision.

Like his predecessor Bill Clinton, US President Bush in his second term may well be set on achieving peace and a Palestinian state, but is there any reason to think he will succeed where Bill Clinton failed? After all, the land is the same land, the refugees are the same refugees, Jerusalem is still there, and Palestinian poverty is still there, and the mutually exclusive aspirations of both sides have not changed. The armed groups that have structured Palestinian political life and thinking remain in charge, and in the best case, the new leader will be chosen from among them, a man of Arafat's generation, who thinks very much like Arafat and who has been . Arafat's death changes practically nothing.

Faced with a difficult situation, the protagonists of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have resorted to magical thinking. They said, "We have placed all our sins on Yasser Arafat. His death has absolved us, and will bring on the millennium." However, the necessary changes will not be accomplished by magic. Only hard and unpleasant work, as well as courageous and painful decisions and sacrifices, can overcome the obstacles and make peace possible.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 2 comments

The idea of Arafat being a great leader may be laughable to many, but if the power struggle amongst the Palestinians is internal that would prove that his death is more unfortunate for all of us than anyone thought possible. Personally, I don't know everything about the situation over there, I have been catching up and learning, but one thing is pretty clear, without one Palestinian voice, peace cannot be achieved. That voice has to be someone that is looking for peace and Hamas, while leading in popularity, is clearly not that voice. Their charter alone eliminates any chance for talks. Palestinians have been left to stand on their own for years in the peace process and need someone in their corner to legitimize a peaceful course of action and swing favor to the PLO. France is the country in the best position to do that in my opinion. They demonstrated the interest of the Palestinians on a personal level when they cared for Arafat. They have been outspoken about their oppostition to the war in Iraq that has been viewed as anti-arab or anti-muslim by much of that region. France is not viewed as a zealous Israeli allie and would be considered a formiddable opponent in negotiations with Palestinian interests in mind. An outside world power would bring legitimacy to the PLO and may help to sway support to the more moderate peace seeking leaders in that region. If left out in the cold once again, Hamas will probably be the dominant force and that could set back hopes for peace in the area of decades.

Posted by Andrew @ 11/19/2004 12:07 AM CST


The problem with the whole discussion about the "Palestinians"
is that the "Palestinians" are Jordanians. King Hussein and other
Jordan authorities say the same things. The "Palestinians" already
have a "Homeland," Jordan.

The "refugee" situation was created
by the Arabs when they attacked the
internationally authorized and recognized Jewish State, even within its impossible bandaries.

There are no internationally recog-
nized "Palestinians." Palestine ceased to exist with the end of the
League of Nations Mandate given to
the British, when Britain vacated the Mandated and Mandated territory. I would appreciate your
comments and further discussion on this life and death matter.

Leo Cooper

Posted by Leo Cooper @ 12/23/2004 09:35 PM CST

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