Life After Arafat

His successors wanted an orderly funeral. They brought in bulldozers to clean up Yasir Arafat's broken-down headquarters in Ramallah. They sealed off the compound to keep out the crowds. They even cleared a hall in which Arafat would lay in state while dignitaries passed by the coffin. What they got instead was the untidy drama of the old regime, the kind of chaos that Arafat thrived on. Well before his body arrived from a memorial ceremony in Cairo last Friday, thousands of young men, a few carrying Kalashnikov rifles, breached the walls of the Moqata, or compound, where Israel had confined him for nearly three years. As the helicopters came into view high in the sky, the crowd began whistling and then chanting for Arafat and for Allah. "With our blood and soul we will redeem you!" some shouted. When Arafat's coffin finally emerged draped in a Palestinian flag, masses swarmed to lay hands on the casket, ripping off the flag and at one point nearly tipping it over.

And so, as with everything Yasir Arafat touched, the forces of disorder quickly overwhelmed what little order had been achieved. From a certain angle, it looked as though even law enforcers were joining the mayhem, firing in the air and scaling the coffin. Were the security men dousing the turmoil or fueling it? Was Arafat leading another Palestinian charge--this time from the Great Beyond--or being led by a wayward pack? Even in death, he was stirring up the same questions and confusion, the rumors and the conspiracy theories (was he poisoned by Israel or the CIA?), the frenzied masses and the volleys of gunfire. "Abu Ammar would have liked it this way," said Mohammed Kirresti, a 57-year-old economist who attended the funeral, invoking Arafat's nom de guerre.

Indeed he would have. Sadly, Arafat's legacy of passion and purpose--and of bullets, bombs and blood--is almost certain to cast a shadow across the region for many years to come. Throughout the Middle East last week, Arabs mourned for the scruffy leader who almost singlehandedly put the Palestinian issue on the world agenda for 40 years. But in Washington and in Israel, officials were quietly (and not so quietly) uttering good riddance to a man who began --his career as a terrorist (he would say guerrilla) and, many critics insist, never stopped being one. Most Israelis and U.S. officials believe that, deep down, Arafat never wavered from his ultimate goal of destroying Israel, even though he pledged on the White House lawn in 1993 to recognize its existence. And they expressed hopes that Arafat's passing would create new opportunities.

That, at least, was the official line. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon said last week he viewed Arafat's death as a chance to renew negotiations. At the White House, President George W. Bush delighted his visiting ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, by promising "to spend the capital of the United States" during his second term on the formation of a Palestinian state. Bush declared he would hold Palestinians' "feet to the fire" to ensure a democratic transition. But even in the new post-Arafat era, Bush balked at some of Blair's suggestions. Among them: immediate moves to hold a Mideast conference and appoint a high-level U.S. envoy. And Bush ducked an opportunity to say he'll put similar pressure on Sharon to withdraw from settlements, a key Israeli obligation under Bush's "Roadmap." Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose own role in a second Bush administration remains in doubt, announced he would meet with top Palestinian leaders when he makes one of two previously planned trips to the region beginning later this month. But behind the scenes, U.S. officials sounded hesitant and cautious. Several expressed concern that even hints of meddling in the selection of Arafat's successor would doom any candidate as a U.S. stooge. "We don't want to smother the elections in our embrace," said a senior administration official. "We'll be calling on the U.N. and European Union to help set this up. We can work with the Israelis on easing travel and roadblocks so candidates and voters can get where they need to go. Much of it will be background work."

Is peace now possible? Both U.S. officials and Prime Minister Sharon are eager to partner with Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime Arafat deputy who served for four months as prime minister before resigning in disgust last year. Bush administration officials acknowledge that they failed Abbas back then by neglecting to give him any help--like pressuring the Israelis to release prisoners or lift checkpoints--in building his credibility with the Palestinian people. And Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), who was selected chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization last week, is likely to be voted the new Palestinian president when elections are held in 60 days, as required by law. Top PLO official Selim Zaanoun told NEWSWEEK that Fatah, the PLO political movement, had already agreed with other Palestinian factions to allow Abbas to run for president unopposed: "After some wheeling and dealing with the national and Islamic factions in the last few days, we know they will not have anyone run against Abu Mazen."

But even if Abbas is elected, it could be many years before he enjoys anything close to Arafat's credibility with Palestinians. The very things that make Abbas acceptable to Washington--his political moderation and his pragmatism--render him unpopular among Palestinians. Khalil Shikaki, the West Bank's leading private pollster, says Abbas would get only about 3 percent of the vote if elections were held today. Indeed, despite the president's long encomium to democracy at the White House, some U.S. officials worry that true democracy could bring leadership even more troublesome to the West than Arafat. "The only two entities that ever came close to Arafat's level of popularity are Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," says a State Department official.

That is still evident in the streets of ravaged Palestinian towns. One breezy day last week after Arafat's death, crowds gathered at Ramallah's Manarrah Square to hang posters of their leader and talk about the pool of potential successors. "No one here likes Abu Mazen," said Mohammed Alwash, a 25-year-old nursing student, echoing the sentiment of most of the young men at the gathering. "He's too close to America." Earlier in the day a few dozen masked militants from the Fatah faction marched to the square with guns and tossed up leaflets calling on cadres to resist any effort by new leaders to halt the intifada--the uprising that has waxed and waned since September 2000. "Abu Mazen will find himself obliged to become a hard-liner in order to win the sympathy of the Palestinian street and to gain popular legitimacy," says Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri.

To further build up his credentials, Abbas may need to join with some of the younger Fatah leaders who have played a key role in the intifada. "Abu Mazen needs to reach out to this young guard," says pollster Shikaki. "If he's unable to do that, it would be almost impossible for him to win." The man he most needs is Marwan Bar-ghouti, the head of Fatah in the West Bank jailed by Israel since 2002. Barghouti, 44, is by far the most popular Palestinian political figure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and last Saturday he hinted that he may run against Abbas from jail. "If you're looking for a potent political successor to Arafat, it's Barghouti," says a senior administration official.

Barghouti has helped Abbas in the past. When Abbas was named prime minister last year, Barghouti brokered a unilateral ceasefire among Palestinian factions from his jail cell, including Hamas. Shikaki says that in Arafat's absence, no other Palestinian has the street credibility it takes to compel Hamas and the other groups to lay down their arms. Some Palestinian officials said the idea of freeing Barghouti to help shore up Abu Mazen's support was being discussed in quiet contacts with the Israelis. But Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom said flatly that Barghouti would remain in prison "for the rest of his life." Barghouti was sentenced last year to five consecutive life terms for engineering intifada attacks on Israelis. Even so, Shikaki says, Barghouti might be Abbas's only hope for enduring long as Palestinian leader. "The first step is for him to ask Israel to free Barghouti. If the Israelis turn him down, that will be [his] downfall."

This is one area where U.S. pressure on Sharon could be critical. But Bush, who has turned his presidency into a principled stand against negotiating with all terrorists and their sponsors, is unlikely to suddenly work for the release of Barghouti. That's especially true at a moment when Sharon's life is being threatened by the Israeli right, particularly the settlers Sharon wishes to displace from the Gaza Strip.

Another Palestinian prospect for Arafat's mantle is Mohammed Dahlan. The 42-year-old former Gaza security chief has broad support in Gaza, though he's viewed by many Palestinians as being too close to Washington as well (the CIA helped train Dahlan's security force during the 1990s). Dahlan also wants Abbas to succeed Arafat, and he is expected to be appointed head of overall security in the West Bank and Gaza if Abbas forms the next government. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Dahlan conceded Abbas was "not a popular figure" but said younger activists would campaign on his behalf and help win him a majority vote.

The instant doubts that surfaced about Abbas are reminders of the biggest shadow cast by Arafat's passing. Even as Arafat failed at seeing the Oslo peace process through, he was the only Palestinian leader who embodied all the dimensions of his people's struggle. He alone had the stature to decide their future. Only Arafat personified both the "Tunis" crowd--the original freedom fighters (others would say terrorists) who went into exile in the 1980s--and the later Palestinian Authority, in which diplomats like Abbas came to prominence. And only Arafat was seen as a leader of the generations that led both the first intifada (in the late '80s) and the second. So large did Arafat loom that when current Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei saw his leader's shriveled, comatose body in Paris last week, Qurei fainted, according to several sources. "He then told the others that it was better not to enter, that they should all remember Arafat the way he was," says Zaanoun.

Even if Bush and Sharon are ready to deal it will likely take many years for Abbas or any other leader to build up the legitimacy needed to negotiate a "final status" peace. That means both statehood and permanently agreed borders with Israel. "Certainly if Abbas were presented with what Arafat negotiated in the year 2000, he couldn't afford to agree to it," says Robert Malley, a National Security Council official under Bill Clinton who was part of the Camp David negotiating team. Crucially, what Sharon is suggesting the Palestinians might get now, no more than 40 to 50 percent of the West Bank, is a fraction of what the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak dangled before Arafat in 2000, which amounted to nearly 95 to 98 percent.

So there is little chance of peace breaking out any time soon--and far more of a chance that we will see a continuation of Arafat's legacy. That means more of the Palestinian intifada and Sharon's evolving response to it, which is to drop all hopes for negotiation, build a concrete barrier between Israel and the Palestinians and hunker down behind it--for another generation if necessary. With Arafat gone from the scene, "the idea that there is no partner for peace will become even truer," says Barry Rubin, coauthor of "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography."

Not everyone shares that bleak view. What most observers do agree on is that the key factor will be George W. Bush. Left to their own inertia, the Israelis will continue to build their wall and beef up some settlements on the disputed West Bank. And the Palestinians will continue to fight both the Israelis and among themselves. Sharon seems out of ideas and Palestinian extremist groups appear to be losing some support as the populace realizes that four years of the intifada have not moved them closer to a state.

That's why some experts, like longtime Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross, believe this is a unique moment for U.S. intervention. Ross says that ensuring legitimate elections now is, in effect, the first stage of the future peace process. He says that if Bush dithers on appointing a high-level envoy, he may already be "giving up the ballgame." For Bush, that would mean taking the kind of activist role in the Mideast he has always resisted. Until last week the president could use Arafat's recalcitrance and insincerity as an excuse for inaction. No longer. Even George W. Bush, it seems, will be haunted by the shadow of Yasir Arafat.