October 28, 2004

Arafat In Critical Condition--Some Insta-Analysis

I haven't blogged too much re: the Middle East of late (read: non-Iraq)--and feel pretty negligent about that. That said, this developing story re: Arafat is huge. Arafat's demise, assuming a credible leader emerges, will force the U.S. to re-engage more forcefully in the Middle East peace process (though much time will be lost through the election/ transition period--especially should Kerry win).

Arafat, love him or hate him, remained in pretty firm control of the organs of PA decision-making through his long confinement at the Mukata in Ramallah. Diplomats were frustrated trolling about PA precincts--because you had to spend days piecing together some "Palestinian" position through myriad interlocuters--who all nevertheless still reported to Arafat. All of this, mostly, was an elaborate fiction borne of various factors. Most prominently, of course, Bush's abject disdain of Arafat and consequent marching orders from the top-down--don't deal with Yassir under any circumstances. So no one on the U.S. (and, increasingly, EU) side of the fence would cut to the chase and contact him directly. Result? Well, aside from the obvious isolation and marginalization of Arafat from the global stage (which many were delighted about)--lots of wasted time too unfortunately.

Now, it appears, Arafat may be on his last legs. If he dies, we can be concerned about a bloody succession struggle and/or generally chaotic conditions in the Territories. Still, while Arafat has never groomed a successor, it appears he's got a committee (of sorts) teed up to handle affairs while he is incapacitated.

Ailing Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat is said to have formed a special three-man committee to run affairs in his absence, Palestinian sources said Wednesday night. The committee includes Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, and Salim Al-Zaanoun, head of the Palestinian National Council, the 512-member Palestinian parliament.

I think the PA will end up rallying around a single successor without total chaos erupting in the Territories. And, assuming it's someone the U.S. can deal with like Abu Mazen or Qureia, we can expect a resuscitation of U.S.-Palestinian direct contact at the highest levels (or, at least, Powell)--which should facilitate forward movement on security protocols and such so as to move the road map back to life.

Bottom line: Arafat's death, which few will mourn in this country, would also likely prove a net positive for regional dynamics and the moribund peace process. Unless, of course, I'm wrong. And a bloody succession struggle erupts--perhaps with Hamas making a greater bid for popular support (arguing they were 'successful' in evicting Israel from Gaza--much like Hezbollah efforts in S. Lebanon--and will try to the same for their 'people' in the West Bank).

That said, re: the Hamas/Gaza angle, note another major potential impact of this story: Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan could be imperiled:

The claim that "there is no partner," which has formed the basis of Israeli foreign policy over the past four years and justified the refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, would depart together with him.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan would lose the central justification for its existence - the lack of a Palestinian partner.

Only one day after the Knesset approved the disengagement plan and the dramatic schism took place in the Likud leadership, all the circumstances appear to be suddenly changing.

Indeed. Anyway, we hope to keep a closer eye on this part of the Middle East over here in the coming days. Very much developing, as they say.

P.S. My money is on Mahmoud Abbas succeeding Arafat. In that vein, don't miss this JPost story that touches on succession scenarios:

Veteran PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was long considered a natural successor to Arafat, has also been sidelined. Last year, following a high-profile confrontation with Arafat, Abbas resigned as prime minister, accusing the PA chairman of maintaining an autocratic style of rule.

Abbas, who has since been boycotting Arafat and the PA leadership, on Monday night visited the Mukata in Ramallah to inquire about the chairman's health and wish him a speedy recovery. It was the first time the two had met since the angry and deeply offended Abbas walked out to protest against his boss's performance.

A source close to Abbas said the visit did not have any political implications and was not an indication that the former prime minister was contemplating a comeback. Palestinian journalists camping outside Arafat's office over the past 48 hours reacted with cynicism to Abbas's courtesy call, joking that the real purpose of the visit was to see if the rumors about Arafat's death were true. [emphasis added]

UPDATE: Not so soon; perhaps.

Posted by Gregory at October 28, 2004 12:34 AM

I hope that B.D. is right about this, because I think Mahmoud Abbas is exactly the kind of leader who can help to resurrect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I may be wrong (please correct me) but I believe Mahmoud Abbas was opposed to Mr. Arafat's inexcusably awful decision to respond to Prime Minister Barak's far-reaching peace proposal not with a counterproposal, but with an inexplicable intifadah. Perhaps it would be better for Mahmoud Abbas to govern as a Prime Minister accountable to the Palestinian National Council, rather than as an another corrupt and autocratic President.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Sharon's Likud Party shares power with deplorable far-right extremist coalition partners who are obstacles to progress. For example, it is unhelpful (to put it mildly) to advocate ethnic cleansing, i.e. expelling 2 million Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank in order to obtain lebensraum for the Israeli ubermenschen. I don't expect Prime Minister Sharon to give up power -- as far as I know he is the most popular politician in Israel -- but if he is serious about moving forward, he should dump the anti-Arab extremists in his ruling coalition and instead form a grand coalition with the Israeli Labor Party.

Posted by: Arjun at October 28, 2004 02:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm optimistic about this, too.

But what about the Barghoutis or Dahlan?

And aren't Abu Mazan and Abu Alaa kind of generals without an army? Wouldn't they get eaten alive?

Posted by: praktike at October 28, 2004 03:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

not sure dahlan is quite ready for prime time this go around. and barghouti is in jail.

Posted by: greg at October 28, 2004 03:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oddly, I'm as hawkish as you can get and it is for this reason I'm worried. The moment that Bush ceased altogether dealing with the old SOB was when the Karin-A's clandestine weapons shipment was discovered, confirming what we already knew about the man--that he's a duplicitous, hateful liar and murderer. The moment he dies, another "moderate" will come to the throne in the West Bank and spend the next two decades demanding second chances. The fiction that the Palestinians are remotely interested in coexistence with the Israelis will be given a new lease on life. Israel's roundly successful strategy will be halted in its tracks.

I hope I'm wrong, but the tenor of the post here seems to confirm my suspicions. Once Arafat's gone, Israel is back to square one, with a brand new anti-Semitic Islamofascist gangster to deal with.

Posted by: Sage at October 28, 2004 04:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"and barghouti is in jail."

You don't think they would let him out? He's got far more ability to get people on board than either of the two Abus, as polite and cooperative as they may have been with Dennis Ross.

Posted by: praktike at October 28, 2004 04:15 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Civil war will break out in the Territories when Arafat dies. Israel will be the winner.

Posted by: Al Superczynski at October 28, 2004 07:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Bush abject" ?!

For me it was the first time someone recognized the disastrous mistake of bringing His Highness the Media Darling and the corrupt Tunes group to the territories. A deal could have been made with Palestinians in territories a more wise group, not a murderous gangster like Arafat. Like the scorpion story it is in is nature.

Posted by: lucklucky at October 28, 2004 07:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: lucklucky at October 28, 2004 07:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, I'm hoping for a nice bloody civil war among the Palestinians. Far better for them to murder each other, than to continue their terrorist attacks against the innocent.

I don't follow your claim that Sharron's Gaza pullout is imperilled by Arafat's death. What in the world makes you think that his death will cause the Palestinians to suddenly become rational, and willingly negotiate in good faith with the Israelis? It's not like they've ever done so.

In chosing to fight against Israel, the Palestinians chose their own fate. And they lost. They can accept the loss, and get on with life, or they can cling to a worthless and totally undeserved "pride" and continue fighting, and losing even more.

Israel is there to stay. It has at least as much, if not more, of a "right to exist" as does any other state in the ME.

When the Arabs accept that, they will become worthwhile negotiating partners. Until they do, Sharron is right to ignore them.

Posted by: Greg D at October 28, 2004 08:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Um, how do you spell ploy? Feint? Deception?

Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 29, 2004 03:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The question I ask is whether, in the absence of Arafat, the PA will finally act on the first step of the Peace Plan which they endorsed. Namely, to disarm their militants and stop the attacks on Israeli civilians.

Is is just me who finds it curious that France has publicly said that they stand behind the murderous terrorist who has refused to allow the peace process to progress? Who had a PM resign, largely over his refusal to cede control over security to the Palestinian people themselves?

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