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Middle East Peace Process After Arafat


The demise of controversial Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raises hopes that the peace process, stalled since the Camp David summit of 2000, can be revived. President Bush says establishing a peaceful Palestinian state will be an important goal of his second term. Analysts examine the effect of these developments on the future of the Middle East peace process.

A day after Yasser Arafat’s funeral, armed men stormed a mourning tent at the burial site during a visit by the new leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas. This was no surprise, says Victor Mordecai, an Israeli journalist and commentator based in Jerusalem. "Arafat’s death, basically, is going to open a Pandora’s box, " says Mr. Mordecai.

Mr. Mordecai says internal tensions have long simmered in Palestinian society between moderate and radical groups, between old-time Arafat cronies and young people on the street and between the Palestinian territories of Gaza and West Bank. He also predicts a power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas, the most powerful Palestinian leader after Yasser Arafat, and Ahmed Queria, temporary president of the Palestinian Authority. The two may find another rival in Marwan Barghouti, a currently jailed Palestinian leader who enjoys wide support among Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat had the authority to keep rival groups in check, says Victor Mordecai, but his death may unleash disorder and violence.

"You are also talking about tens of thousands of machine guns that have been distributed to all the different militias and all the different groups. You have fighting over who controls the streets, who controls the neighborhoods. You are talking about people whose lives depend on that control. It is not a democratic system. It is more like a mafia system. And you have different mafia gangs fighting each other," says Mr. Mordecai.

Analysts agree the future of Palestinians depends largely on how fast they can form a coalition government able to prevent chaos. Jean Abu Nadir, a director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, says such a coalition must include some of the revolutionary groups and leaders because peace is not possible without their support. "So you have, for example, the head of the security forces in Gaza and you have Marwan Barghouti, who is in prison right now in Israel, as probably the two most important non-religious leaders," says Mr. Nadir. "But then you also have Hamas and Hezbollah, particularly Hamas, which we have to pay attention to because without their acquiescence or their participation, there will be no successful coalition in terms of a new Palestinian leadership."

But Mr. Nadir notes and many other analysts agree that the involvement of the United States may be the single most important factor in reviving the Middle East peace talks. After his re-election victory, President Bush announced that a goal for his second term in office is to establish a peaceful democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel. Jean Abu Nadir says Palestinians may not be convinced of his commitment. "President Bush will do what’s necessary to make his administration successful. If he sees the Palestinian issue as a liability unless they follow Israel’s lead, then he will not do anything that would require risk in terms of American political leadership. If he sees a real chance for peace and a real opportunity to make his mark in history the same way Bill Clinton tried to make his mark in history, then I think Bush will go ahead," says Mr. Nadir.

For now, the U.S. administration is expressing political will to get involved, including perhaps assigning a special envoy for the Middle East. But U.S. officials also say they will wait for the Palestinian people to choose a credible leadership. Analysts note that a leader too closely identified with the west could forfeit the trust of his people.

Clayton Swisher, author of a new book titled "The Truth About Camp David," believes if Palestinians manage to hold a viable election within the next two months, the United States will get involved in the peace process.

"There’s been a widespread recognition at the highest levels of our government, including our intelligence agencies, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the over-arching thorn on the side of our relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Progress on that is essential to progress in the war on terror," says Mr. Swisher. However, he adds, Israel’s commitment is equally important. With Palestinians under a belligerent Yasser Arafat, President Sharon could say he had no partner for peace. But now, at least temporarily, says Mr. Swisher, Israel can deal with a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to negotiate.