The pre-post Arafat era
Few Palestinians can imagine a future without Yasser Arafat. Graham Usher
writes from Ramallah
(see Yasser Arafat focus
Last Saturday -- for the first time in 35 years -- the PLO executive held a meeting not chaired by Yasser Arafat. Its general secretary, Mahmoud Abbas, sat to the right of the chairman's seat; Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, to the left. The point of the meeting was to demonstrate unity and continuity in the Palestinian leadership and the normal functioning of national institutions. The executive was called -- Abbas told all -- "at the request of President Arafat before he left Ramallah".
Two days later a 16-year old Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself amidst a crowded vegetable market in Tel Aviv, leaving three dead and dozens wounded. As is normal with any attack on civilians inside Israel the Palestinian leadership condemned the operation, claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. So did Arafat, from his hospital bed in Paris.
The two events highlighted what are likely to become the main features of the current twilight zone caused by Arafat's illness and dramatic flight to Paris last week. The first is the long shadow he casts -- and will continue to cast -- over all aspects of Palestinian governance. The second is whether his absence will have any impact on the dynamics that have long overcome his leadership.
It is unlikely to have much immediate effect on the main determination of Palestinian life: the occupation and the violence that accompanies it. The last suicide attack inside Israel prior to Tel Aviv was on 22 September. Between the two, the Israeli army and settlers killed 165 Palestinians in the occupied territories, including 115 during a single offensive in northern Gaza last month.
In Nablus -- where Amer Al-Far, the Tel Aviv bomber, originated -- over 400 Palestinians have been killed since the Intifada began in September 2000. Within hours of his attack in Tel Aviv an Israeli undercover squad gunned down three Palestinians in the old city, including Majid Marei, local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of Fatah.
Will Abbas and Qurei be able to roll back this relentless wheel? They would appear well placed to try. Both have long denounced the military cast of the Intifada and criticised Arafat for not drumming more order in the Palestinian areas. They have the support of much of Fatah's younger political leadership for their commitment to reform as well as the old guard leaders, if only because, without Arafat, these have nowhere else to go. But what inhibited Arafat from acting against the militias will also apply to Abbas and Qurei, says a Palestinian minister.
"If the people feel there is a new potential in the political situation -- which means some kind of peace process -- then it will support whatever actions Abu Mazen and Abu Alaa take. Without this not only will they be unable to do more than Arafat, they will not dare to do more."
Nor is it clear whether they will be able to stem the drift to collapse in Fatah. The hope is that the crisis generated by Arafat's illness will assert a sense of discipline on all shades of the movement, including its increasingly freelance military wing. But it could just as easily lead to further fragmentation, with some cells seeking external sponsors and others rallying behind this or that warlord.
To avert this Abbas and Qurei will need the support of the PA's myriad security forces, particularly those headed, or under the sway, of such chieftains as Mohamed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Tawfiq Tirawi. The problem is that these forces have rarely checked the disintegration. On the contrary, they are often party to it.
Nor is it clear what kind of support the new leadership will receive from the Islamists. On news of Arafat's illness Hamas and Islamic Jihad called for the establishment of a "United National Leadership", to be swiftly followed by new Palestinian elections -- a demand some viewed as the height of responsibility, others the height of opportunism.
But Arafat's incapacitation will make elections less likely. First, because as long as Arafat is alive there will be some in Fatah who will see any new poll as tantamount to the creation of an "alternative" leadership. And, second, because without him Fatah will fare even worse in the vote than current assessments predict. "The absence of Arafat is going to shift the balance of power in Palestinian society in favour of the Islamists. We will have to be very careful as to the timing of any election," says the minister.
Finally there is the impact of Arafat's health on Ariel Sharon's plans for the region. The night before the Palestinian leader was taken seriously ill in Ramallah, Sharon won parliamentary approval for his disengagement plan. He defended its unilateral character on the pretext "there is no partner on the Palestinian side."
There might be one now, suggested Sharon to his cabinet on 31 October, on condition that it act to "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure". This is not going to happen. What can happen -- at least in Gaza and for the duration of the disengagement -- is a reciprocal ceasefire based on the militias holding their fire in return for Israel ending incursions and assassinations. It is a formula that currently has the support of Abbas, Qurei, Fatah, Hamas and Egypt. But its realisation does not depend on whether Arafat returns to Ramallah or dies in Paris. It depends on what Sharon does in Tel Aviv.