Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's departure from the scene would bring about a significant transformation in both the Israeli and Palestinian political scene. The claim that "there is no partner," which has formed the basis of Israeli foreign policy over the past four years and justified the refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, would depart together with him.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan would lose the central justification for its existence - the lack of a Palestinian partner.
Only one day after the Knesset approved the disengagement plan and the dramatic schism took place in the Likud leadership, all the circumstances appear to be suddenly changing. One can already hear Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom navigating a compromise proposal: postponing disengagement until a new and stable Palestinian leadership is formed that would take over the Gaza Strip by agreement. Shalom supported the "disengagement with a partner" from the beginning, and now it can be used to bring Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat and their supporters back to their chairs and to calm down the rebellion in the party.
The American president who will be elected Tuesday would be free of the dilemma that has tied down U.S. policy in the region: How to renew the political process with the problematic Arafat stuck in the middle.
With European encouragement, Washington would be able to renew its involvement and lead the negotiations between Israel and Arafat's successors, particularly if John Kerry is elected. Sharon would be required to begin negotiations immediately if the Palestinian leadership is taken over by moderates like Abu Mazen, who has not been involved in terror.
Arafat's successors would have to renew talks on a final agreement and not make do with the interim solutions proposed by Sharon. They would agree to put an end to the conflict and set up a state if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 borders more or less and would get wide international support for an independent state.
As a first step, Israel would be called upon to make gestures to enable the new leadership to settle in - opening up roads, freeing prisoners, genuinely freezing settlements.
Sharon would claim that as long as the situation is not clear and the new leadership is not stabilized, no risks can be taken. Undoubtedly he can win some time until he is forced to discuss difficult issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. But the claim about "chaos in the PA" would shake the disengagement initiative and make it difficult to withdraw. How is it possible to withdraw if there is no order?
At the same time, Sharon would demand that the road map be followed to the word and that negotiations be postponed until terror, violence and incitement are completely contained. Meanwhile, he may want to carry out the disengagement unilaterally.
The international community would find it difficult to accept this for fear that Sharon is returning to the "seven days of silence" maneuver that held up the diplomatic dialogue at the start of his term of office. Israel would be expected to transfer control in the territories in an orderly manner, otherwise, it would be accused of responsibility for a disaster.
But from one point of view, Sharon can check off an item on his list. For years he has been hoping for the death of his perpetual adversary, Arafat. Every time Sharon found himself in a crisis, and his chair was unsteady, it seemed as if Arafat would remain in power while Sharon would return to the Sycamore Ranch. That is one nightmare that Sharon no longer needs to live with.
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