There is one thing, at least, that Yasser Arafat can count on: Israel will help him die a dignified death. From Wednesday evening, any and every physician was able to get to the Muqata in Ramallah, Arafat's headquarters and home for the past two-and-a-half years.
Medical delegations from Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan showed up, and if an expert on intestinal diseases from the West Indies had been discovered, Israel wouldn't have prevented his arrival, either. Israel even gave Arafat permission to go to the hospital and then opened its skies for the Jordanian helicopter that was on standby for the mission. Israel has even agreed to let Arafat return from France. Dead or alive. Israel may extend its generosity to a dignified funeral and will allow heads of state to pay their last respects to Arafat, without breaking diplomatic relations with their countries.
The point is that the concern in Israel is not so much about who or what will replace Arafat, or about how to advance the road map immediately after he dies. The main concern would appear to be that Israel will be accused of hastening his death or, heaven forbid, of causing it, especially when the impression is that he may die at a "good time" from Israel's point of view.
A Jordanian commentator did not hesitate to say, in a phone call over the weekend, that "if Arafat dies now, it will help [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon advance the disengagement plan, because the settlers will receive a gift in the form of Arafat's disappearance from the stage. Arafat in return for the settlements." This is also a "good time" to let the Palestinian leadership reorganize itself, meaning a further lengthy delay of any political initiative. And it's also "a good time from the viewpoint of [U.S. President George] Bush, who will be able to say that two terrorist leaders were removed during his watch: Saddam Hussein and Arafat," as the Jordanian commentator put it.
However, the script department, which is working overtime to produce scenarios of the future, would do well to recognize the fact that Arafat will not bequeath a political miracle when he dies. The reasons for the delay in the political process will not vanish and may even become more entrenched: Power struggles in the Palestinian Authority and between the armed Palestinian factions can be expected; Hamas and Islamic Jihad may confront the PA with new tests of power; because of the elections in the United States, any political initiative may well be deferred until next January or February, a period when the elections in Iraq - assuming they are held - will be of greater interest to the new administration in Washington than a Palestinian change of government; and, finally, implementation of the disengagement plan is scheduled to begin in March, and it's hard to believe that, if it overcomes all the political hurdles on the way, Sharon will want to add to it readiness to launch a new political initiative based on the road map.
Arafat's legacy will not disappear with his death. And this is not the private legacy of his family. The Palestinians' demands for recognition of the right of return and for a state based on the 1967 lines and a capital in Jerusalem, which includes some of the holy places, will continue to be voiced even if the style of the negotiations - assuming there are negotiations - changes. On the other hand, the Palestinians, too, will no longer be able to disavow the very existence of relations between Israel and the PA, relations that Arafat fomented by signing the Oslo accord. That, too, is his legacy.
The natural inclination of Israelis who are fed up with the political telenovela of the government is to point out that Arafat's death will also put an end to the claim that there is "no partner" and that a new era is thus being ushered in. As though it was Arafat the person - and not the ideology that guided him - that prevented negotiations. At the end of the day, even if Israel's citizens find themselves watching Arafat's funeral on television, they, more than the Palestinians, will determine the degree to which the Palestinian side has become a "partner."
In any case, the nitpicking analysis of the Palestinians' political behavior in a post-Arafat era might be only a brief respite in the genuine drama: the political decision that is expected in Israel in another two weeks, followed by the lead-up to the decision on the evacuation of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, followed by the evacuation itself. In the course of these developments, it is the Israeli "non-partners" who have dictated and will continue to dictate the outcome, and it is best not to rely on Arafat, this time after his death, to save the government from the continuation of the disengagement initiative.
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