Yasser Arafat failed to achieve an independent Palestinian state and refused to make peace with Israel. New Palestinian leadership offers a fresh opportunity for a negotiated settlement that would establish a Palestinian state next to the democratic Jewish state.
Ideally, the Palestinians will hold a democratic election that will bring to power a person with the courage and vision of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein. Such a leader would reform the Palestinian Authority and put an end to violence. Israel’s leaders would respond favorably and resume negotiations.
While the United States and Israel undoubtedly have favorites who they would like to see emerge as leaders of the Palestinians, American or Israeli support would be counterproductive. Most Palestinians would see such an endorsement as an indication of the candidate’s weakness or lack of commitment to the nationalist cause.
Given Palestinian politics, it does not seem likely that Arafat’s replacement will be chosen by democratic means.
Arafat’s leadership was based largely on the loyalty of security forces that he earned by paying them off with international aid intended for the Palestinian people. These forces are loyal to no other leader and whoever takes control of Palestinian finances may be able to buy their support.
Since Arafat maintained power by virtue of having the most guns, it is likely he will be succeeded by the person with the next largest arsenal. This could be one of the security or intelligence chiefs in the West Bank or Gaza. The equivalent of a mob war may break out among these competing warlords.
A civil war among the Palestinians may be a necessary condition for establishing a governing authority that can make peace. The Islamic fundamentalists will have to be marginalized, and the terrorists jailed or eliminated if the Palestinian Authority is to have any hope of evolving into a state.
So long as the Palestinians do not allow their internal conflict to spillover into Israel, the Israelis should allow them to choose their own leaders. Israel, however, will have no obligation to negotiate with them unless they are committed to peace and a two-state solution.
If one of the warlords succeeds in winning power, he may become a partner for negotiations. At least one of the security chiefs is considered a potential interlocutor, but it is also possible that the winner of a power struggle will be a radical who is committed to the same destructive policies as Arafat.
Although they are trying to exert control in the short-term, it seems unlikely that the current or former prime minister has the popular support, or the authority over the security forces, to hold power or advance the peace process. Should they succeed, however, in solidifying their leadership, and taking the necessary measures to stop the terror, Israel may be able to negotiate with them.
One danger is that pressure will automatically be placed on Israel to make concessions, or to be less aggressive in fighting the war on terror, regardless of whether Arafat’s successor makes a commitment to peace. It may be in Israel’s interest to take steps to help a new Palestinian leader, but these measures will have to be calibrated based on the security situation.
If a future Palestinian leader commits by word and by deed to the terms of the road map, Israel can be expected to respond positively.