After Arafat, world waits and hopes
Yasser Arafat leaves behind him a profoundly mixed legacy. He was at once the founder of modern international terrorism and the driving force behind Palestinian political identity. His death last week throws the spotlight on the fragile prospects for a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinian diaspora who claim a homeland within Israeli territorial boundaries.
Arafat remained to the end the symbol of his people's hopes for statehood, though he failed to build the institutions to make that possible. And while he succeeded in keeping awareness of the Palestinian cause alive in international circles, he never completed the crucial transition from rebel leader to statesman.
The Palestinian Authority has not provided the services associated with functional modern states. Funds meant for welfare were diverted elsewhere, allegedly to cronies whose support Arafat needed to keep his four-decade lock on power. Meanwhile, education and health have been neglected and the occupied territories are mired in poverty.
Crucially, Arafat passed up chances to make compromises or accept imperfect peace offers that might have nonetheless delivered the two-state solution that ordinary Palestinians so desired.
What happens next depends very much on the Palestinians' pragmatism. Potentially competing factions, from the militants in Hamas to the old-timers who have been with the Palestine Liberation Organisation since its early days, have so far shown remarkable restraint, backing shared leadership and an election for a new president in two months' time. How legitimate the election is and who wins it will determine the chances for resuming peace negotiations with Israel.
Much depends, too, on the resolve of key players in Israel and the United States. George W. Bush, who is in a position to influence the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has signalled he wants to see an independent Palestinian state by the end of his second term.
Whether this translates into good-faith gestures ahead of the Palestinian election remains to be seen. These should, observers believe, include reducing the Israeli military presence in the occupied territories, freezing or dismantling Jewish settlements and freeing political prisoners. Here, Mr Bush will face stiff resistance from Mr Sharon, who sees an end to militant attacks against Israel as a precondition to any other steps.
Mr Sharon insists on sticking to his unilateral plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, while building a security fence that further inflames Palestinian passions. With the support of Britain's Tony Blair and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Mr Bush may yet be able to convince Mr Sharon to co-ordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority in order to prevent a power vacuum and the inevitable battle among militant groups for control once the plan is executed next year.
Progress depends on Israel and the US going beyond the circular logic that has put the internationally supported road map for peace on hold and left the citizens of both sides with so little hope or security. Mr Sharon must rise above himself to seize any opportunities that come along.
Getting to an agreement will not be easy. The Israeli position, for one, has hardened since its offer of land for peace was rejected by Arafat in 2000. Settlement activity has doubled since then, while a four-year-old uprising marked by Palestinian suicide bombings and the inevitable Israeli military reprisals shows no signs of ending.
A share of the responsibility for this state of affairs must rest with Arafat, the contradictory figure who championed Palestinian statehood but never achieved it. His 1994 Nobel Prize for peace was, regrettably, premature, as Arafat departed the scene without ever delivering the peace. Decades into his struggle, Arafat renounced terrorism, but his inability to end the violence engendered Israeli scepticism about his true intentions.
With Arafat's passing, there is some room for optimism. The new chairman of the PLO is Mahmoud Abbas, a pragmatist and one of the Palestinians' lead peace negotiators four years ago. Then there is Ahmed Qorei, who continues as prime minister. Both are opposed to the uprising and its violence against Israeli civilians. Yet they come from a position of weakness, lacking Arafat's charisma and popular support.
The unknown factors include the pull of leaders such as Marwan Barghouthi, who claims a wide following despite having been imprisoned by Israel, and the co-operation of the militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Holding an election will be one thing - even with financial and security support from the US and others - but getting broad Palestinian acceptance of the result could also present a challenge.
The emergence of a moderate leadership with the popular support to sell necessary compromises to the Palestinian people could mean new life for the much-battered peace process. The hopes of the world are pinned on this, and on a constructive Israeli response, though such an outcome is far from certain.