And the New Leader: Arafat

The demand for reforms within the Palestinian Authority will lead to a new, strengthened Palestinian leader at the end of the elections: Yasser Arafat. No government in the world will then be able to question the validity of his status.

The festivities and expectations regarding Yasser Arafat's speech last Wednesday made at least one thing clear: If anyone can replace Arafat, it is only Arafat himself. Less than a day before his speech, everyone had just about finished their analyses about the demise of his leadership. There was talk about possible replacements and a war of succession, stories of grassroot Palestinian pressures and even visions of guardian angels from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan coming in the dark of night to the Muqata building to install a fresh Palestinian leader, perhaps a Zionist one. To keep things in perspective, it is instructive to note that Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmad Maher, said last week that the diplomatic activity of the Arab states is not at all intended to clip the wings of the intifada or bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, but only to move the Palestinian struggle onto a diplomatic track.

On the other side, Sharon floated the test of reforms as the threshold condition for entering into a diplomatic process. The expression "reforms" has, as usual, a double meaning. For Israeli ears, there is only one reform. It makes no difference to Israel who the members of the Palestinian parliament will be, who the mayors are, whether the status of women will be recognized or whether Palestinian child labor is prohibited. After all, Israel is not interested in democracy for democracy's sake, but rather in "reform" that will depose Arafat and remove him from the public discourse.

American ears hear "reform" differently. They were quick to praise Arafat's speech, his condemnation of terror and decision to implement reforms in the American sense - those aimed at building a more soundly functioning Palestinian government, unified security forces, and transparent economy deserving of foreign assistance in advance of establishing a Palestinian state, which has become a firm stance in American policy. But reality in Palestine has its own voice, and it is unlike the voice of either Sharon or the American administration.

Sharon, who confuses reforms and democracy, will ultimately receive a Palestinian democracy the likes of which he has already rejected. Several months ago, the European Union proposed holding elections in the PA under international supervision with the aim of bolstering Arafat's position as a legitimate partner in the peace process. Israel rejected this idea, and so did the American administration. This was during the era of Arafat's "irrelevance." Now it is permissible to again make preparations for new elections to be held perhaps in another year or sooner. The results, of course, can already be anticipated. The demand for reforms will lead to a new, strengthened Palestinian leader at the end of the elections: Yasser Arafat. No government in the world will then be able to question the validity of his status.

This result will become more apparent during the coming days, after Arafat embarks on a round of visits abroad. He plans his first visit, as is only fitting and polite, to Saudi Arabia, where he will thank Crown Prince Abdullah for his efforts, especially for getting him released from the Muqata prison. Arafat will continue on to Egypt and Jordan, and travel from there to Europe. All of a sudden, it becomes clear to Israel that Operation Defensive Shield did a good job of fortifying Arafat's status. The reason for this is that between the two leaders - Arafat and Sharon - Arafat is the only one who will make the rounds with something new, a diplomatic plan, or at least some sort of magic package called "reforms." Sharon, on the other hand, has nothing to show. How much longer can he talk about "painful concessions" and his aspiration for peace when it becomes clear that Operation Defensive Shield has no diplomatic follow-up and no utilization is made of the military advantage. Instead of a hand extended in peace, the region received the Likud central committee and a freeze on the use of the term "Palestinian state."

At the bottom of the Middle Eastern map, Saudi Arabia is now waiting to see how the American administration carries out its side of the deal. Crown Prince Abdullah has already delivered the goods - there has been a public and Arab denouncement of terror, a Saudi initiative and promise of Arab peace with Israel at the end of the road, and even a Palestinian campaign for reforms has begun. Now it is Bush's turn to deliver his Israeli goods.