American presidents since Richard Nixon and secretaries of state since William Rogers have had to deal with the reality of Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader, even when they did not meet with him face to face.
With the Arafat era coming to a close, President Bush and his diplomatic team are likely to confront an environment in the Middle East that is even more turbulent than usual, with the possibility that no dominant Palestinian leader emerges in the near term.
In an interview with the Financial Times published Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the transition of power taking place due to Arafat’s illness was a chance to move a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue forward. “We are ready to seize this opportunity aggressively,” Powell said, calling the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process “one of the biggest overhangs in our foreign policy, the way it is perceived.”
Powell did not supply any details on post-Arafat strategy, and the president’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, has been unwilling to comment further on Arafat, much less on what landscape the Bush administration would face in the post-Arafat era.
Deep uncertainty ahead
Middle East experts outside the administration portray a situation of deep uncertainty once Arafat’s demise is confirmed.
Glenn Robinson, an expert on Palestinian politics, author of “Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution,” and teacher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said the era of one-man dominance of Palestinian politics has ended. “That era is gone,” Robinson said. “The downside of the passing of the ‘Great Man Era’ is the potential danger of fragmentation, but no one will dominate Palestinian politics again as Arafat did.”
As for how long the Bush administration will wait to see if one new leader emerges once Arafat’s death is confirmed, Robinson said, “They should engage quickly, but we’ll see. There are some key people in the administration,” he said, who, like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “are not keen to restart Israel-Palestinian negotiations in a serious way, so they may advise holding back longer than is prudent.”
“The Palestinians are going to feel remarkably weakened and under siege as a consequence of Arafat leaving the scene, and there's going to be a determination that the time of maximum weakness is not the time to make concessions,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In a post-Arafat world, Alterman said he expects the Bush administration to open a dialogue with current Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas. “But we'll be careful about how we do it. Anything that looks too much like an embrace will discredit them, not help them. The United States’ ability to hurt things is much greater than its ability to help things.”
Challengers to PLO?
Arafat and his associates have claimed leadership of the Palestinians, but while they were outside Palestine in the 1980s and 1990s and during the intifada, other Palestinian leaders came to the fore in Gaza and on the West Bank, many of whom reject the Oslo accords to which Arafat agreed in 1993.
While the U.S. government knows who these leaders are, Alterman said, “I’m not sure we would want to talk to a lot them; some have a fairly long track record of violence against civilians.”
One factor that will weigh in the leadership selection is the Israeli government’s building of the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
“President Bush has made it clear he sees the wall as a good thing. The wall is the most dynamic force changing the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians” because “it is making facts on the ground,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, formerly a Middle Eastern specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Since the building of the wall, he said, the number of terrorist attacks on Israel has dropped noticeably.
In Gerecht’s view, the wall will force Palestinians on the West Bank into closer relationship with Jordan and “it tells the Palestinians the border is no longer a subject for negotiation. The suburbs of Jerusalem are not going to be turned over the Palestinians. Once the wall goes up it is very unlikely it is going to be moved.”
Gerecht said the choosing of a post-Arafat leader “will be a fascinating thing to watch. To what extent will the Palestinians allow a democratic process to take place? I think you will find Hamas and Islamic Jihad insistent on representation within the Palestinian Authority — or else they will go into very effective opposition.”
He added, “It is entirely possible that a greater democratic process could lead to a more hard-line position” in negotiations with Israel by whatever Palestinian leadership emerges.
Process for electing new leader
Robinson said there is a specific process for electing a new leader for the Palestinian Authority. The speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Rauhi Fattouh, would become acting president for 60 days, during which time an election would be conducted.
“The rub is that an election needs active Israeli cooperation, since Israel controls the territory in which the election would take place,” Robinson explained. “Israel would need to redeploy out of populated areas and would need to allow Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote, as they did in 1996. Both of these propositions contain serious considerations for the Sharon government, and are not foregone conclusions.”
Robinson added, “It is terribly important that the Bush administration not miss this historical opportunity. There is something like a six-month window of opportunity in which Palestinian governance can be rejuvenated and the peace process moved forward significantly. It will take active U.S. participation to make this happen. If we miss it, then other forces will likely coalesce, making future progress on either front more difficult.”