Arafat’s Passing Poses Major Test for Bush

The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will test whether U.S. President George W. Bush intends to maintain his staunch support for Israel’s right-wing government at the risk of further alienating the U.S.’ European allies and Muslim public opinion.

It will also provide an early insight into whether the hardline coalition that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001 – aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives who support Israel’s governing Likud Party, and the Christian Right, which supports Israel for mainly theological reasons – will retain or even expand its influence in the president’s second term.

While, as Arafat neared death at a Paris military hospital Wednesday, Bush told reporters he saw an "opening for peace" in the Palestinian leader’s passing, most analysts here believe the balance of forces within the administration still favors the hardliners, and that Washington will not do anything to upset Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans to unilaterally withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip while consolidating Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

Thus, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in advance of his two-day summit with Bush here at the end of this week, had declared that restoring the Israeli-Palestinian peace "is the single most pressing political change in our world today," is expected to get a polite hearing, but his appeals for Washington to adopt a more evenhanded position are almost certain to be turned aside.

"Given that the administration and a huge majority in Congress have explicitly endorsed the Sharon plan, the prospects for a major change in U.S. policy of the kind Blair will be urging are pretty bleak," said Stephen Zunes, a Middle East expert at the University of San Francisco.

In addition, the anticipated departure from the administration of Secretary of State Colin Powell will only strengthen the position of administration hardliners, particularly pro-Likud neocons in the National Security Council (NSC), particularly Near East Director Elliott Abrams, in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and in the civilian leadership of the Pentagon.

Arafat, who was former President Bill Clinton’s most frequent foreign visitor after he and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands at the signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn in September 1993, was vilified as a supporter of terrorism by Bush and his most influential advisers.

At one point, Cheney confided to Israel’s defense minister that he thought the Palestinian leader, who was elected president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) by nearly 90 percent of Palestinians in one of the freest elections ever held in the Arab world, should be "hung."

When Sharon moved to permanently confine Arafat to a small compound in Ramallah three years ago, the administration insisted only that the Israeli forces not arrest or harm him physically.

Shortly afterward, in June 2002, Washington announced it would no longer deal with Arafat at all, but only with "moderate" leaders who could oversee new elections, exert control of all Palestinian security forces, and halt all terrorist attacks against Israelis, both in Israel and in the occupied territories.

As Arafat’s U.S.-approved prime minister Mahmoud Abbas took steps to comply with those conditions, however, the Bush administration failed to press Sharon to reciprocate by, for example, releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, gradually withdrawing the Israeli Defense Force from occupied towns, or dismantling illegal Israeli outposts on the West Bank.

All of these steps were required by a new "Road Map" put forward by the European Union (EU), the United Nations, Russia, and the United States in early 2003 to restore a credible peace process.

"Despite his promises to do these things, Sharon failed to deliver," said Henry Siegman, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who played a key role under Clinton in the Oslo peace process. "And despite Bush’s promise to press Sharon to keep these promises, he also failed to deliver. Sharon gave Abu Mazen [Abbas] nothing."

As a result, Abbas, who now succeeds Arafat as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), resigned as prime minister in September 2003, effectively dashing hopes for a revived peace process but permitting Sharon to insist that, with Arafat still in control, he had no "Palestinian partner" with whom he could negotiate.

Blair, as one of the prime movers of the Road Map, clearly intends to press Bush on using his influence with Sharon to put the plan – which incorporates Bush’s 2002 demands on the Palestinians but also requires Israel to freeze settlement activity, dismantle illegal outposts, and take other reciprocal steps – back on track, particularly now that Arafat has passed from the scene and "moderate" leaders, especially Abbas and his successor as prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, appear to make up the core of a collective leadership that intends to hold elections early next year.

"Bush should work with Israel to allow Palestinian moderates to show results to their people that will enhance their stature, mostly through repackaging steps that Israel is already willing to make," such as following through on its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now (APN), a predominantly Jewish group that supported the Oslo process.

The problem, however, is that in an exchange of letters with Sharon over the latter’s Gaza plan last April, Bush not only endorsed the Israeli leader’s unilateral course, but also took positions on settlements, territorial compromises, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes that, according to both Oslo and the Road Map, must be left to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The critical question will be whether Sharon will continue to act unilaterally, insisting that he does not yet have a Palestinian partner for peace so that he can continue to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank, or enter into serious negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership," according to Siegman.

"The answer to this question will depend on how seriously the United States will become engaged and insist that the new Palestinian leadership be helped by Israel and be given the credibility it needs to fight terror and to pursue a nonviolent approach to Palestinian goals," he added.

"Nothing will happen unless the Israelis and the United States make it happen," Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday. He noted that Sharon and his supporters in the Bush administration will argue that the ability of Palestinian moderates to enforce their will remains uncertain and that any major new diplomatic effort by Washington is premature, at best.

Still, Arafat’s disappearance makes it more difficult for the administration to argue it should not be more deeply involved, since it has now been deprived of its main excuse – Arafat’s presence – for not becoming engaged.

"As long as Arafat was in power, the question was whether there was a Palestinian partner for peace," according to Siegman. "If he is replaced by a Palestinian leadership that opposes violence, the question will become: is there an Israeli partner for peace, and what is the United States doing to make sure there is?"

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.