Arafat's Torch Bearers

Those who maintain that liquidating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be a panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have two scenarios in mind.

Those who maintain that liquidating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be a panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have two scenarios in mind. One is a situation in which Arafat's successors from within the Palestinian Authority will be more convenient in terms of cooperation with Israel, will agree to suppress Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and will establish a Palestinian state for the greater glory of the State of Israel.

The second scenario holds that Arafat's successors will not come from the moderate wing. Its exponents in fact want none other than Hamas and Islamic Jihad to take power, on the assumption that the Palestinians will then find themselves embroiled in a civil war, so that at the end of the day Israel will be able to do battle against them in the same way the United States is now fighting the Taliban, and even to reoccupy the territories.

These two scenarios are good reason to hope that Arafat continues to hold his position, at least until he agrees to create the suitable political platform on which his successors can lean. Because even according to the first scenario, the successors who step into the shoes of a national, historic symbol will display - certainly in the first stage - greater toughness than the original. A case in point is Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Gamal Abd el-Nasser as president of Egypt, but was not able to start forging his own autonomous history until the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Bashar Assad is young, intelligent, highly educated, almost British, yet is having a difficult time freeing himself from his father's shadow. The truth is that every successor in a totalitarian state that has turned its dead leader into a national symbol, needs a long time to recuperate from the symbolism.

In the Palestinian Authority, where there is no successor ready and at hand (apart from those conjured up in Israel's imagination), the situation could be far more serious. That's because every side - even if Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not take part in the succession struggle - will want to demonstrate that it is clinging tenaciously to the path carved out by the National Symbol. The public will always draw comparisons between the new leader and the dead leader, especially if the new leader really has to cope with movements like Hamas and the Jihad, which will see no reason - certainly as long as no government has stabilized - to conform to the will of a non-religious Palestinian leadership.

The same situation exists in Israel. No leader from the Likud who succeeds Sharon will be able to allow himself to approach the negotiating table unless Sharon leaves behind a legacy stipulating that such negotiations are ideologically kosher. Menachem Begin was able to conduct "his" negotiations because he was a breakthrough leader. But Yitzhak Shamir had to pit himself against his mentor and his inflexibility was far greater than Begin's.

The goal now is to reach the stage of the succession with an Arafatist legacy that will include a package of national concessions. In this connection, declarative concessions are also of considerable importance, even if they are not going to be implemented in the near future. For example, if it were possible to come up with an accepted formulation that would replace the right of return or the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem, such agreements would be able to be invoked even after Arafat leaves the scene. However, the concessions, if they are obtained, place a great responsibility for Arafat's life on Israel - because none of the Palestinian leaders who follow Arafat will be able to undertake to implement Arafat's agreements if Israel is responsible for his death.

It remains to examine the consequences of the second scenario, which has Israel contending with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and perhaps a few more similar successors. True, Palestine will then be a country without political masters, but even in that situation Israel will not be able to have a free hand on the trigger. That's because Israel's battle is not against organizations but against a nation, and if Hamas turns out to be the choice of the Palestinian people, that will be a legitimate choice and the Western world may well accept it.