It is doubtful whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to see Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat out of the picture, and his authority delegated to another Palestinian leader. The demise of Arafat would also mean the demise of the Palestinian "non-partner," the loss of the excuse for all of Israel's main political decisions being taken unilaterally, without negotiating with the Palestinians or reaching an agreement.
From Sharon's standpoint, it is preferable for the next stages of his plan to be carried out unilaterally, with a weakened Arafat peering out from the Muqata at the unfolding events. While this is undoubtedly Sharon's interest, it is hardly compatible with Israel's strategic interests.
Sharon has gone through a series of extreme about-turns in relation to Arafat. First, as defense minister during the Lebanon war, he tried in every possible way to hurt Arafat while the siege of Beirut was on, including a plan to down a plane carrying Arafat. As prime minister, he supported former then chief of staff Shaul Mofaz' plan to expel Arafat from the territories. Sharon backtracked when he discovered all the heads of intelligence opposed the idea. Instead he acted to impose a siege on the Muqata, but later bowed to U.S. pressure not to harm Arafat, although the U.S. administration had essentially bought the claim that Arafat was a non-partner, who obstructed any kind of dialogue.
The timing of the severe deterioration in Arafat's health seems to have been orchestrated by a political maestro. It happened just as a majority of members of the Knesset confirmed Sharon's disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, and when the United States is facing elections that may usher in a new president, John Kerry, or, alternately, Bush may decide on a new policy line after Arafat.
The conjunction of these three factors might create a new political opportunity, with the rise of a Palestinian leadership who will act to put an end to terror and to reform the Palestinian security organizations. But a negative scenario is also possible: Arafat's illness incapacitates him, and the leadership is paralyzed because no one will dare to take steps leading to real change, such as ending the violence and renewing negotiations with Israel. Another negative scenario would be a vacuum created in Arafat's absence, leading to a battle over the inheritance, which could deteriorate into gang warfare. Hamas will then rise from the dust, because it will use the opportunity to renew terror attacks against Israel. The inevitable result will be a harsh Israeli response.
If Arafat goes, Israel is likely to hear from Europe and others that it should reopen negotiations with the new Palestinian leadership over the disengagement plan. If Abu Mazen takes the Palestinian throne, Israel will have a chance not to repeat past mistakes and to assist him immediately, and generously, so that he becomes a serious partner without the shadow of Arafat hovering over him. The same applies to Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Ala, who consistently avoids taking any real action.
The obligations do not exist only on the Israeli side. They also confront the entire Palestinian leadership after Arafat. From Israel's point of view the first Palestinian obligation is to end terror, and to combat Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which don't want to end the war with Israel. Here Egypt has a central role to play, in brokering a cease-fire among the Palestinians and a general cease-fire. Second, the Palestinians must carry out the reforms they committed to under the road map. The reforms include reducing the number of security organizations to three, all answerable to the Palestinian PM or the Interior Ministry of the PA. The key to renewal of negotiations and to quiet is not a return to abstractions, as at Taba, but rather adherence to the concrete road map, which both sides have accepted, albeit with reservations.
The road map established clear-cut phases and a timetable, obligations for both sides, negotiations and an international conference. The road map is the path that can lead both sides back to negotiations.
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