Yasser Arafat's death was declared not by his physicians but by his successors, who convened on Thursday evening to start preparations for the funeral and forge the new Palestinian leadership.
Yasser Arafat has died, even if he is still breathing. His death was not declared by his physicians in Paris but by his successors in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who convened on Thursday evening to start preparations for the funeral and to forge the new Palestinian leadership.
The new leadership will be able to take action without a symbol hovering above and will no longer be able to pin the blame for its success or failure on someone else. A leadership of functionaries and technocrats, lacking charisma or historical baggage, will not be prompted to bring into being a wall-to-wall Palestinian coalition - with representatives from Hamas, whose spiritual and political leadership has been shattered, with Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the other organizations. On the agenda is a Palestine of compromises.
This is a situation that no few countries have found themselves in with the passing of a symbolic, charismatic leader, when his successors suddenly discovered that historical or ideological ruins do not generate a living. The Middle East, too, has known similar situations. Egypt escaped from the shadow of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria from that of Hafez Assad, Jordan from that of King Hussein, and last week Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the historic leader of the United Arab Emirates, died. During their lifetime there was constant internal and external apprehension about what would happen after their departure from the stage.
Yet when the unsurprising event occurs, it turns out that the local milieu is able to fill the governmental vacuum. No revolution took place in Arab states in which the leader died. The only military coup in recent decades is the one the United States fomented in Iraq. Will we see the same quiet outcome in Palestine after the conclusion of the mourning rites for the departed rais? Are chaos and internal warfare unavoidable in the immediate future? It is possible that the forecasts of a possible violent internal struggle, which were valid for the Arafat period, will be out of place in the post-Arafat era.
If in his time the thrust of the political struggle in the Palestinian Authority and between the different groups was over the powers granted by Arafat, it is clear that his successor, be it a joint leadership or a new president and prime minister, will require the help of all sides.
Those who maintain that there is no one Palestinian figure who is strong enough to hold on to power and stabilize the situation, cannot also predict only disorder, because precisely a less authoritative leadership may be compelled to make political concessions - as opposed to concessions of statecraft - in order to survive. However, such governmental stability cannot be created without concrete assistance from Israel and the United States. At this stage this will not take the form of far-reaching diplomatic processes but of help in the process of disengaging from the Arafat era and in the creation of an economic and political infrastructure that will be perceived as legitimate by the Palestinian public. In short: money and plenty of it, jobs, investments, convenient transit points between the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Egypt, and a holistic conception of security of a kind that is not based solely on preemption and destruction but on elements of economic and social encouragement and backing away from points of friction.
The Gaza disengagement plan points in that direction, and it will have to be extended into the West Bank and Jerusalem as well. The new Palestinian leadership, even if it has Hamas representatives, will probably be more attentive to and more dependent on countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. An intelligent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians could create an opportunity for new legitimacy in terms of the relations those countries have with Israel. So it's quite easy to be swept into an optimistic approach and to start going over the plans for a rail line from Damascus to Afula.
Best, though, to calm down. The end of the Arafat era is an event that relates above all to the Palestinians. They paid the steep price when they missed opportunities and they gained to the extent that any gains can be identified. Israel will be able to share in the dividends that will accrue from the end of the era in return for an appropriate investment. The slogan of "territories for peace" may now take on greater force, because this time the Palestinians might be able to deliver the goods. The question is whether Israel will be willing to make the investment.