Ariel Sharon had an important piece of news for the Palestinians on the morning of Yasser Arafat's death. He made it clear to them that the death of one "no partner" does not imply the birth of a new "yes partner."
As far as Israel is concerned, the Palestinians have to know that it's business as usual. The disengagement plan will continue, as will the war against terrorism, and the Palestinians should please not bother the Israeli government with political plans if they are not fighting terrorism / implementing reforms / fashioning a democracy. Now the true features of the "non-partner" will become apparent: It wasn't just Arafat - Israel wants to settle accounts with the entire Palestinian people.
Indeed, Israel's initial statements indicate that the Palestinian people should not expect very much. Israel continues to be entrenched in a waiting position, making do with reacting to events. First we'll see who will head the Palestinian Authority, then we will check out the date of the elections, if any, and then we'll see whether Hamas is a partner or not, and we'll take note of who will control the street: Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the Tanzim militia or Marwan Barghouti from his prison cell.
The position of those who react, as distinct from that of those who initiate, is the convenient posture in which Israel has placed itself for the past four years, without seeing any reason to abandon it. After all, the disengagement plan, too, did not enter the world as an initiative, but as a reaction, and it should not be described as something it is not. It is not a political plan and not even the lever toward such a plan. The thing is, in the absence of a partner after Arafat, there is no one to whom to propose the disengagement plan, and its fate is sealed to be a unilateral move, as Sharon wanted from the outset. What substitute can there now be for Israel's shoulder-shrugging policy? First, it is not superfluous to make it clear to the Palestinians that willingness exists to open a new chapter.
Israeli-Palestinian history does not consist of separate pages that are detached from any context; it is a complete book that has its ups and downs. It contains the intifada but also the Oslo process, both terrorism and economic cooperation, personal hatreds between leaders but also friendly relations between ordinary citizens.
Now a new chapter is beginning, and Israel is waiting for its end in order to know whether it wants to start reading. At the end of last week, a new leadership was appointed in the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Fatah. Jerusalem has not uttered one word of invitation to negotiations, has not made any attempt to offer an outstretched hand. "The concern is that we will bear hug a Palestinian leader," the experts warn. In other words, anyone who is invited to negotiate with Israel will be considered a traitor to the Palestinian cause and to the memory of Arafat. Well, the colonial approach is still with us, praise be to God. That approach says those who want to go on occupying the Palestinians have to beware of attaching a collaborationist label to a Palestinian leader. But if the intention is to launch a policy based on initiatives and not reactions, there is nothing wrong with inviting the Palestinian leadership and declaring the intentions publicly.
No, there is as yet no concrete plan on the table, no concession of territories, removal of settlements, evacuation of settler outposts or dismantling of checkpoints. All that's involved is a new atmosphere, a different working assumption, which holds that proffering your hand is not a sign of weakness. Instead, Israel is proposing a "package of benefits" to the Palestinians, and even that has limiting conditions, as though the whole thing was about a dissatisfied client.
Israel, in fact, stands at a far more important junction than the government is willing to admit. It's not every day that the person who embodied the ultimate enemy vanishes from the scene permanently, the person who created the Israelis' perception of the Palestinian image, the fomenter of the "culture of terrorism" that is ascribed to the Palestinians. There is no other Palestinian or Arab leader who can fill this void for the Israelis. And there is no point in looking for him in a place where he is not to be found.
Israel does not need a substitute for Arafat or a Palestinian leader who will constantly be measured against him. Israel needs a total political renewal, which this moment perhaps accords it: a direct line to the Palestinian people.
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