Yasir Arafat buried the political careers of three Israeli prime ministers, Ariel Sharon liked to tell confidants, referring to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. But, Prime Minister Sharon would add, he won't bury me.
With Sharon's goal of outlasting Arafat seemingly close to fruition, there's satisfaction in the prime minister's office, but little joy. That's because the new Palestinian leadership that succeeds Arafat almost certainly won't deliver on Israel's nonnegotiable demands for renewing peace talks: disarming terrorists and dismantling their operational command. True, Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister and now acting head of the PLO, has called the intifada a tactical, if not a moral, mistake. And the aging, uncharismatic bureaucrats who have assumed control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) will likely tone down the jihadist incitement. Unlike Arafat, Abbas is unlikely to be depicted in murals as Saladin on a white steed, or to invoke the chairman's rhetoric of a million martyrs marching on Jerusalem.
But the post-Arafat PA won't disarm Hamas and Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Instead, the PA likely will offer Israel yet another cease-fire. For Sharon, that's the worst of all possible options. A cease-fire would allow terrorists to recover their losses through renewed recruiting and thus hold Israel hostage to the threat of renewed terrorism. Meanwhile, international pressure would demand Israeli concessions to strengthen the new Palestinian leadership.
Given this grim possibility, Sharon's plan is to try to deflect that pressure by proceeding even more vigorously with his unilateral withdrawal, granting the Palestinians a ministate in Gaza that would test their ability to control terrorism and manage a government. If the Gaza experiment works, and a stable leadership disarms terrorists there, Sharon would begin negotiations over withdrawal from parts of the West Bank in exchange for an interim peace agreement.
It's far more likely, though, that this period following Arafat's incapacitation--though the frail Palestinian leader may yet survive, he appears seriously weakened and may never regain his control over the PA--will be marked by bloody power struggles within the PA. These would pit rival Fatah factions headed by local warlords against the old PLO "Tunis" elite that accompanied Arafat back to Gaza from exile.
This infighting could be followed by an even more violent power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. In fact, the opening shot of the succession war has already been fired in Gaza, with the recent attempted assassination of its new security chief, Moussa Arafat, the chairman's cousin and a rival of Gaza power broker Mohammed Dahlan. "We don't expect anything good to happen in the PA in the foreseeable future," says one Sharon aide. "And so unilateral withdrawal will give the Palestinians time to work out their new reality after Arafat. Either they will control terrorism and move to negotiations, or their state will disintegrate." Either way, Israel gains--by facing reduced terrorism or reduced foreign pressure (if the international community sees a Palestinian state fall apart because of Palestinian mistakes).
While the Gaza withdrawal may ease international pressure on Sharon, domestic critics are demanding an end to
his unilateralist approach in light of Arafat's decline. Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest tabloid, recently editorialized that Sharon should scrap unilateral withdrawal and instead "seriously examine if he now has partners with whom he can negotiate a speedy political process that will create calm in the territories." Predictably, Oslo accords architect Yossi Beilin insists that all Israel needs to do now is finalize a deal with the new Palestinian leadership and end the conflict. Yet four years of terrorism have made a comprehensive peace impossible for the foreseeable future, both because Israelis won't trust the Palestinians to share Jerusalem and because no PA leader will waive the idea that Palestinian refugees should return to pre-1967 Israel. Indeed, during the failed Camp David negotiations in July 2000, Abbas was no less opposed than Arafat to compromising on refugee return. "Only Arafat had the authority to give up the right of return," a Palestinian journalist told me recently. "No other Palestinian leader will dare give in where he wouldn't. Arafat's legacy is a veto over compromise."
Life without Arafat is inconceivable not only for Palestinians but also for Israelis. Since the late '60s, when he assumed control of the PLO, Arafat has been the measure of Israel's national mood. After the 1967 Six Day War, Arafat's terrorism campaign taught Israelis that not even their stunning military victory would bring them peace. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he spoke to a standing ovation at the United Nations with a pistol holster on his hip, he symbolized the delegitimization of the Jewish state.
Finally, Arafat understood that the only way to defeat Israel was to divide it, and so he tempted Israelis with peace. It nearly worked: In the 1990s, he was depicted by the satirical Israeli puppet TV show "Hahartzufim" as a bumbling, almost loveable figure; following the Rabin assassination, Leah Rabin welcomed Arafat into her home but refused to shake hands with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Perhaps even more than for his terrorism, Israelis today despise Arafat for this deception, toying with their deepest longings and making them fear the word "peace" as synonymous with self-delusion.
Yet, as relieved as Israelis are to see him go, the problem is hardly Arafat alone. The Oslo process failed because Palestinian society denies the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders. Israel's Oslo architects believed legitimacy would result from peace; now, Israelis realize that legitimacy is a precondition for peace. And so one more Israeli demand for resuming negotiations will be ending anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian schools and media. Beyond controlling terrorism, the real challenge of the post-Arafat era will be nurturing a changed Palestinian debate over Israel's legitimacy.
Arafat's intransigence not only forced compromise-minded Israelis to despair of co-existence; it also forced maximalists like Sharon to accept the separation of Israeli and Palestinian societies. In the same week that Arafat became all but politically irrelevant, noted one Army Radio broadcaster, the "old Sharon" disappeared with the Knesset's vote on Gaza withdrawal. The two leaders, she continued, shared eerily similar histories. Both were born in the late 1920s, as the Palestinian war on Zionism was beginning; both fought near Jerusalem in the 1948 war; and both denied any competing claim to the land. But, with his plan for unilateral withdrawal, she concluded, Sharon has withdrawn from his uncompromising war, "and it's as if Arafat had no one left to fight against and decided to withdraw, too."
So far, aside from tactical shifts, Arafat's heirs show little sign of withdrawing from maximalist Palestinian dreams. And now that Sharon is risking civil war to uproot settlements, he will have even less patience for Palestinian leaders who hide behind the fear of civil war as an excuse to avoid confronting terrorism.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
By Yossi Klein Halevi