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What's next after Arafat?

Martin Fletcher, NBC News' Bureau Chief and lead correspondent in Tel Aviv, reflects on the passing of former Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and what it means for the future of the Mideast peace process.
A Palestinian man weeps outside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank on Thursday.Alaa Badarneh / Sipa Press
/ Source: NBC News

Martin Fletcher, NBC News' Bureau Chief and lead correspondent in Tel Aviv, reflects on the passing of former Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, the effect his death on hopes for Mideast peace, the future of the Palestinian leadership, and what it was like to cover the rebellious leader over the years.  

How does Arafat’s passing help or hurt the hopes for peace?
That’s the big question. The Palestinian leaders say they will continue his way. If they do, the peace process won’t go anywhere. What they need to do is change direction.

Both Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia) in the past have told Arafat that terrorism has only hurt them, not helped them. Both, in their own time, tried to take control of security services, but Arafat would not give up power.

So, now with him out of the way, if they can take control of the security services and armed militias and impose their law and order, then it is a way forward. So, we have to see whether or not that happens.

But the ball is not only in the Palestinians court, it also depends on what the Israelis do.

Sharon needs to give them [the new leadership] things — release prisoners, encourage investment — in order to help the Palestinian leaders to take control. In the past [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon never did that. He needs to give them a quick victory so they can say, “see we are getting stuff done — trust us.”

So this is a challenge to the Palestinians to make a fresh start, but also a challenge to the Israelis.                               

So what's next for the  Palestinian leadership?
They‘ve already chosen Abu Mazen to take over for the PLO. So basically they need to get support from the street, because most Palestinians do want peace.

With Arafat they had the only leader they ever knew. And now there is no leader that has that loyalty, they have to earn it. Who ever follows needs to earn that loyalty from the people.

There is talk of "who will succeed Arafat" — but maybe that's not what they need -- not another all-powerful symbol and dictator, but a democratically elected, pragmatic leader, who can take them forward.

What about the danger of infighting among the Palestinians?
That’s the fear. And it’s quite likely in Gaza, where Hamas is very powerful and is demanding a share of power. They are not represented at the moment in the new leadership.

They want a role, but they don’t have a role. Since they don’t — they will probably end up taking it. Since they are so powerful in Gaza, that’s probably where the violence will take place.

It’s also an issue of settling of scores. People who wouldn’t dare attack each other before while Arafat was around, will now feel freer to do so.

Having said all that, there is now an agreement among the leaders in Gaza to keep the peace. But who knows how long that will last.

How will Palestinians remember Arafat?
In two ways: as the great father who brought their struggle to the attention of the world, but, also as someone who allowed corruption to flourish around him and ultimately failed to bring his people any improvement in their lives.

It’s surprising how muted the reaction is to his death. Actually it's quite shocking. So far today there have been just a few small rallies. It’s surprising how unspontaneous the reaction is. There will probably be more reaction when his body comes back.

Did the accusations of corruption in the last few years tarnish his legacy?
Yes, the corruption, the missing money, his refusal to give up any power at all. Even when he went to Paris to die, he wouldn’t give up any power — completely oblivious to anything going on around him.

Is there a sense of relief in Israel?
Among Israelis there is great relief because they saw him as an obstacle to peace, and now hope this will open the way to peace. Among Israelis there is great anger at him for the loss of life; even among the left wing who has been pushing for peace, they were fed up with him.

Israelis are looking forward to the new leaders who are considered much more reasonable. They also understand that the more reason [the Palestinian leaders] show, it will be more difficult for them to maintain power because the Palestinian radicals see them as a sell out and as American puppets.

This is a real democratic challenge to the Palestinians today; the new leaders need to mobilize the so called “silent majority,” if there is one. They need to show the radicals that their way is not the way. It may turn out that there isn’t a silent majority.  But if there are democratic elections, some of the gunman I’ve spoken to say that they will respect the popular vote. Of course, those gunmen were part of the Fatah movement — the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Not Hamas, they will never stop the struggle.

What do you recall of Arafat from your years of coverage of the Mideast crisis?
My coverage of Arafat? It’s been too long. I remember him in Beirut in the mid to late 70s. Then also in Jordan, later in ’82.

He was a man that thrived on being beaten. That was his failure, and for the Palestinians as well. The great Palestinian tragedy was that they were led by a leader who enjoyed losing, who thrived on losing.

Intimidation was a strong tool in how he stayed the leader and put down the opposition.

In the last 2-3 years there was a lot more criticism of Arafat among Palestinians. They were just fed up. They would never say that to the foreign press, but when the cameras weren’t rolling they would. That’s why things have stayed quiet and there hasn’t been this spontaneous outpouring in the streets yet.