Amid the public tussle over whether Yasser Arafat was more sinner than saint is a strong undercurrent of hope. With the leader the Israelis decided they could not and would not deal with out of the picture, is there a chance to redeem the promise of Oslo with steps toward peace? Should the United States become more closely involved in trying to bring the two parties together?
As strong as is the human impulse to want to keep hope alive, the answer to both questions appears to be no.
Multiple authorities on Palestinian politics believe the struggle for succession will be bitter, and the leader or leaders who emerge are likely to be at least as hard-line as Arafat had been, perhaps more so at least for the near future.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes “there will likely be a period of greater Palestinian rigidity on Arab-Israeli peace issues before there is a period of greater flexibility.”
For various reasons, including fear of a potential rival, Yasser Arafat declined to name or groom a potential successor, preferring to keep his closest aides competing for favor, distrustful of each other. Those habits will be hard to break. And the likelihood is that promising to be more accommodating with Israel — at least at this point — is more likely to hurt a potential leader than to help him.
In addition, as Glenn E. Robinson, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at University of California-Berkeley, pointed out in a recent article, an “inside-outside” cleavage is likely to be a feature of Palestinian politics for some time to come. The 1987-1993 intifada, he argues, brought to power not those who had stayed in the West Bank and led the resistance, but, through the Oslo process, those who had stayed abroad. There is also still a sizable Palestinian diaspora in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Europe that will want a piece of power. It will take time to resolve these divisions.
On the other side, Israel is engaged in a fierce internal debate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to remove Israeli settlements and troops from Gaza. Even if a perfectly accommodating Palestinian leader emerged in 60 days, it is questionable whether Israel would be prepared to negotiate.
As sad as these realities might be, as urgently as well-meaning Americans and Europeans might want to step in to fix things, the best course is to be patient and keep hands off. The Palestinian people will define themselves anew during the succession struggle, but it will take years. For the outcome to be conducive to peace negotiations, they must find their new identity themselves.