By Stanley Reed
As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lies gravely ill in a Paris hospital, he leaves a desperate situation behind in his homeland. Four years of a second intifada, which he helped inspire but turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation, have left Palestinian institutions and the economy in wreckage. A settlement with Israel leading to a viable Palestinian state looks as far away as ever.
Many worry that Arafat's death would leave a power vacuum that could produce a new spiral of violence. While such disorder is possible, it's far from a sure thing -- especially in the short term. Currently, a reasonably orderly transition seems to be taking place. A small group of insiders from Arafat's Fatah action are taking the reins.
When Arafat departs for good, the speaker of the parliament, Rawhi Fattuh, is slated to become the the interim President for 60 days. But he's a figure with little power. The real authority will be held by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Querei (Abu Alaa), and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a co-founder of Fatah and longtime Arafat associate. Abbas would chair the Palestinian Liberation Organization while Querei would run the Palestinian National Authority -- or what's left of it.
These men are an interregnum, not a permanent solution -- though this period could last for some time. True, both are pragmatists, interested in reaching a deal with the Israelis even though they're from the same generation as Arafat, who's in his mid 70s. Querei was born in 1937, while Abbas was born in 1935. Neither are in good health. Querei was a key architect of the 1993 Oslo settlement framework.
The Bush Administration, which has refused to deal with Arafat, may consider his apparently imminent departure as an opportunity to resume talks. Yet anyone who thinks Arafat's successors are ready to make major concessions is probably dreaming. They don't have the popular support to give up longstanding positions on territory or the right of Palestinians to return to what is now Israel.
"They have more willingness to negotiate but less ability to [make concessions]," says Rashid Khalidi, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York and author of several books on the Palestinians as well as the recent book, Resurrecting Empire.
While much has been made of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to pull Israeli troops out of Gaza and dismantle settlements there, few signs show that the leader has similar intentions for the West Bank -- the core of an eventual Palestinian state. He seems determined to hang on to large chunks of the West Bank, which has a far larger settler population than Gaza.
The U.S. also doesn't seem willing to push the Israelis for a deal that a post-Arafat Palestinian leadership could accept without taking suicidal risks with its own popular base. Arafat's passing would provide an opening for greater American intervention. But the sort of arrangements being discussed in Washington now, such as linking Palestinian population centers in the West Bank by bridges and tunnels while the Israelis retain control of large chunks of territory, seems likely to lead to continued stalemate.
That's bad news for everyone, especially the Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank whose lives are being blighted by violence, poverty, disruptions to their education, and other hardships. The Palestinians have learned harsh lessons over the last few years and are probably ready to choose new leaders. While Arafat may remain a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, those around him are scorned as corrupt and ineffective.
Analysts such as Khalidi think the best bet for bringing in new blood and thinking would be holding elections. When Western observers heap scorn on Arafat, they often forget that Arafat was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, winning 85% of the votes. But violence has allowed him to delay holding new elections for years. Those who might do well in a vote include Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah activist who has been in prison in Israel on murder charges since 2002.
Unlike many of the older generation, Barghouti, who's in his 40s, is a West Bank native, where he enjoys much greater popularity than the returnees who have surrounded Arafat. He scores well in polls. A leader of Arafat's Fatah organization, he has nevertheless criticized corruption and lack of democracy in the Palestinian Authority. Other young contenders include Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, the former security chiefs in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively.
They are controversial figures among Palestinians but have good rapport with Israeli and American security experts. In a chaotic situation, such figures could seize power. But most analysts doubt that they could broker a lasting settlement. Only someone who enjoys broad support among the Palestinians is likely to be able to convince them to make the tough choices needed for peace. Like Arafat, that person will probably not be an easy negotiating partner.
Reed is BusinessWeek's London bureau chief
Edited by Beth Belton