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Analysts Discuss Yasser Arafat’s Legacy


In this special report, Judith Latham discusses Mr. Arafat’s legacy, the issue of succession, and the prospects for progress toward peace and security with regional specialists.

“Arafat is the only leader the Palestinians have known for several decades," says physician Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. "He is the founder, the George Washington, of modern-day Palestine, and he is especially revered as someone who made a singular contribution to the rebirth of Palestinian nationhood and the anticipation of statehood. Having said that and remembering his many achievements, it is clear that the Palestinians have been going through very difficult times for the last few years. And a good share of the blame has been assigned to the leadership. Although it is a mixed feeling, it’s too bad he did not live [long] enough to establish a state.”

With the passing of Mr. Arafat’s political influence, Dr. Asali says he sees some hope for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership that is more unified than in the past.

“There will be competing parties to take over decision-making on the part of the Palestinians. This is a time for unity for them, and they are all aware of that," he says. "It has been extremely impressive to those of us who watch the situation how the Palestinians have refrained from saying or doing anything that indicates division or conflict.”

Dr. Asali also thinks that the new political reality in the Middle East may offer the Israeli government an opportunity to reassess the prospects for dialogue. And it may enable President Bush at the beginning of his second term to put greater pressure on both parties to negotiate.

“The most obvious thing is that it will take away the one card that made it possible for both the Israeli government and for the United States to say that there is no Palestinian partner,” says Mr. Asali. “Whatever Palestinian leader emerges cannot be labeled as an unacceptable political partner, so it will have ramifications for the whole process of disengagement from Gaza. It certainly will have ramifications for the relations between the Palestinian leadership and the United States.

"There are possible attractive alternatives in the Palestinian leadership for a dialogue with the United States," he continues. "And if those elements take over, it certainly would be easier for the Palestinians to negotiate their fate with the American administration that would have influence on the Israeli partner. And I am confident that there is a level of communication between American officials in Palestine with various elements within the Palestinian leadership. This has taken place for a long time and it is taking place now.”

Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations, has served six U.S. administrations. He is now president of Seeds of Peace, a grassroots organization that prepares Israeli and Arab teenagers with leadership skills needed to promote peace and coexistence. Mr. Miller says he believes that history’s judgment on Yasser Arafat will be a mixed one.

“On the one hand, he will receive enormous credit as the individual embodiment of Palestinian nationalism, the man who essentially put the Palestinians on the political map and brought a divided, decentralized movement into the mainstream of international politics," says Mr. Miller. "On the other hand, I think history will judge him unkindly in that he never really made the transition from revolutionary diaspora leader, capable of leading quite skillfully a divided national movement, into a position of leadership where he was able to create the foundation of good governance and smart negotiations.

“And I think emblematic of that fact is the period of July 2000 to December 2000 when, rather than putting a counter-offer on the table, which might have created follow up for negotiations with Mr. Barak at Camp David and with President Clinton, he chose to cling to the notion that Palestinians needed 100 percent,” he notes.

Aaron Miller says as a statesman, Yasser Arafat does not compare favorably with either Nelson Mandela or David Ben-Gurion, for example. “It may well be that the circumstances confronting the Palestinian people were tougher. But leadership is leadership, and it requires vision, and it requires courage, and it sometimes requires an enormous capacity to risk. And while Mr. Arafat was willing to take that risk during the initial phases of the Oslo process, he wasn’t able and willing to do it toward the end of his life,” says Mr. Miller.

With respect to the Palestinian leader’s successor and the emergence of a Palestinian state, Mr. Miller says the future is unclear, although there are some guidelines.

“The basic law provides for a transitional mechanism for succession to Mr. Arafat within 60 days after the death or incapacitation of the Palestinian Authority executive," he notes. "The speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council should emerge as an interim successor, pending elections. Now, I don’t think there will be elections over the near term. And as a consequence, you are going to have a variation, which is already taking place.

“Abu Ala, who is currently Prime Minister, will assume responsibilities for running the Palestinian Authority, finances and security mainly. Abu Mazen, Secretary-General of the PLO and one of Arafat’s senior colleagues over the last 30 or 40 years and involved in Fatah politics, will take over the PLO’s Executive Committee and probably Fatah as an organization. That is the formal succession process," says Mr. Miller.

"But it doesn’t really answer, in my judgment, the key question, which is: who will have the authority and the legitimacy necessary to make the kinds of decisions that are confronting the Palestinian national movement right now?" he continues. "Who will have the authority to either negotiate with, or confront, Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Who will have the authority to deal with the government of Israel in negotiations? Who will have the authority, assuming that the Gaza initiative proposed by the [Israeli] Prime Minister moves from a unilateral focus to a bilateral one? That is to say, a Palestinian partner emerges. And this is a critical question.”

Ambassador Phil Wilcox, the former U.S. Chief of Mission in Jerusalem, says the best way to ensure a permanent successor, who has respect and legitimacy, would be for the Palestinians to hold elections. Ambassador Wilcox, who is now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says preliminary steps have already been taken.

“Indeed, they want elections, and Arafat had agreed to the beginning of an election process. Registration is already taking place. I don’t know who would be elected if there is an election,” says Mr. Wilcox. “There are younger Palestinian leaders. There are people like Mohammed Dahlan, in Gaza. There is Jibril Rajoub, who is one of the security chiefs. There is Marwan Barghouti, who is now in jail. No one could predict who might win, but an election would be important because it would give a real mandate to lead and a legitimacy that no other Palestinian has. Whether even an elected prime minister could halt the violence is problematical. Because unless there is a corresponding move on the Israeli side, it would be hard for any Palestinian leader to crack down on all of these dissident, fractious, and violent elements.”

But the main problem of succession, Aaron Miller believes, is that Mr. Arafat dominated the Palestinian national movement for more than 50 years with more authority and more international weight than any Palestinian has now or is likely to have for the foreseeable future.

“Therein lies the real challenge," says Mr. Miller. "I would argue there is no identifiable or immediate replacement for Mr. Arafat. And that leaves open the real possibility that to empower his successors, once they are chosen and legitimized by the Palestinian public, will require enormous help and support from the government of Israel and a much different character to an American role in the Israeli-Palestinian problem."

According to Aaron Miller, it is questionable how much impetus the Sharon government has to do business with Mr. Arafat’s successor, even if he were a political moderate. "My rule of thumb is to never pray for anything you really don’t want," he says. "And the Israelis seem to have prayed – at least some Israelis prayed – for Arafat’s passing. And they have it. The question is what are they going to do with it. In my view, they have a critical role in strengthening this Palestinian partner.

"The only game in town right now is 'Gaza first.' And it has to be unmistakably clear, it seems to me, that ‘Gaza first’ is not ‘Gaza last.’ That, in effect, the Israeli initiative moves from a unilateral focus to a bilateral one. A Palestinian partner emerges, the Israelis negotiate a comprehensive withdrawal from Gaza, the Palestinians have their security responsibilities, but it has to go beyond that," continues Mr. Miller. "I think this process has to be linked to withdrawals on the West Bank, tied to the broader issue of the Road Map or at least progress toward a two-state solution. The Israelis could take many steps economically, assuming the Palestinian Authority is willing to do what it needs to do, in an effort to relieve pressure on the Palestinian street and strengthen a new Palestinian Authority.”

But most critical to any improvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations at this juncture, former State Department advisor Aaron Miller says, is the role of the U.S. government. “The Americans, it seems to me, have to change the nature of their involvement over the past four years. I believe a case can be make that a second Bush administration could be very well positioned to do that,” says Mr. Miller. “Number one, it has tremendous currency in the bank with Israel. Number two, I think we will begin to disengage from Iraq over the course of the next 18 months. And as we disengage from Iraq, we’re going to be looking for issues on which to reengage – issues that have real resonance in the region. And there is no issue, frankly, that has greater resonance than Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"And finally, a second Bush administration is freed from most of the constraints of reelection politics. So, to summarize, you’ve got three factors that are coming together right now. Number one, the possibility of a re-energized second Bush administration. A bold and historic initiative, although it’s unilateral, proposed by the Prime Minister of Israel and now endorsed by the Knesset. And finally, leadership changes that could break open an opportunity. But these three parties – the Americans, the Israelis, and the Palestinians are going to have to work together to accomplish any of this.”

It remains to be seen whether the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can truly serve as a catalyst for improved relations in the Middle East and for a greater U.S. role in peacemaking.