Arafat’s Death May Change Very Little

RAMALLAH – Just one moment in that jostling crowd under undisciplined Palestinian security forces at the funeral of Yasser Arafat was enough to pick up on huge problems for resumption of a peace process in the Middle East.

The faithful of Arafat’s Fatah movement were chanting slogans that they will stick to the supposedly moderate path of their departed leader. At the same time armed militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, now renamed the Yasser Arafat Martyrs Brigades, marched across the Muqata compound in Ramallah where their leader was being buried, vowing to continue attacks on Israel.

Six or seven security organizations were present in different uniforms. The ill-equipped and poorly trained forces lost control over the crowd, raising questions about their capacity to re-impose control over Palestinian territories.

The new diplomatic realities are not clear, either. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair seem eager to exploit the departure of the veteran Palestinian leader. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of the opportunity for a historic "turning point."

Surely this is too much credit for a man who was termed irrelevant by both Bush and Sharon over the last couple of years. A leader who had the run of only a few office blocks in his Ramallah headquarters, and that too only by the grace of the Israelis who could have taken him out at any moment.

Any momentous change, which the passing of this icon of the Palestinian struggle naturally is, could bring an opportunity for progress in the Middle East. But it should be clear to any observer in the Palestinian territories and Israel that the conditions on the ground have not changed substantially.

Israel still occupies most of the West Bank, keeping cities surrounded and making travel difficult. That became clear again from the tales of the relatively few Palestinians who made it to the funeral from outside the Ramallah area. Israeli forces still carry out arrests and assassinations in Palestinian cities.

Sharon and his right-wing coalition have not yet shown any sign of easing conditions in a significant way. Nor have they shown a willingness to stop settlement activity, engage in serious negotiations, or take any of the other steps needed to renew a peace process.

Under pressure from the Americans, it does seem that Israel will allow Palestinian elections to go ahead by their announced date of Jan. 9. Sharon has even said that "some" Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which is annexed by Israel, could participate.

Elections have their own dynamic, and it would be premature to bank on the interim Palestinian leadership, which is seen as moderate, coming out top. Nobody knows the real strength of the ruling Fatah movement.

The interim leaders are regarded by many as part of a corrupt clique that came up around Arafat. They have provoked much resentment among the Palestinian population over the last decade or so. This "old guard" is still strong but is being challenged increasingly by a new generation of leaders who are not always more moderate.

The moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who is Arafat’s heir as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), is one of the few from the old guard who is well respected. But the shooting at an event he attended Sunday where two security guards were killed was an early sign of militant resistance to moderate leadership.

In his first term as prime minister last year he failed to bring militant groups under control. He was seen as too moderate by many in his own Fatah faction. Arafat was, of course, still playing a large role at the time, many say as spoiler.

A senior Fatah official in the West Bank who is close to the Yasser Arafat Martyrs Brigades says the new leadership must stick to the demands that were on the table while Arafat was alive. These include full Israeli withdrawal from areas the Israeli army occupied during this Intifada, a freeze on settlement activity, release of Palestinian Authority (PA) money held by Israel, and release of prisoners.

There seems little prospect that all the demands will be met. It will be clear soon enough after elections are held whether a new leadership will get the room to maneuver that it will need if negotiations are to resume. Some Fatah leaders say elections should not to go ahead if these demands are not met first.

All these problems and more should mean that international leaders hoping for a quick breakthrough in the peace process need to exercise more restraint.

Leaders of the pro-West Arab states and the Western Europeans with their own large Muslim communities seem particularly keen to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They see it as the cause of much of the instability in the Middle East and of anti-Western feelings.

But any mutually agreed solution is bound to fall well short of what many in the Arab and Muslim world will regard as just, even if the Palestinians accept it.

The danger of investing so much importance in solving a conflict of middling intensity is that it may put so much pressure on either of the parties that they will just snap under it and revert to what they know best, a new round of bloodletting. This is very much what happened after the failed Camp David talks in 2000.

Such is the danger of hyping the opportunities presented by the passing away of Arafat. Unless renewed hope and investment of diplomatic capital miraculously create a new dynamic that helps both parties to achieve peace.

Read more by Ferry Biedermann