Life After Yasir

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Yasir Arafat's death is a historic milestone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a new starting point in the efforts to resolve the decades-old holy-land feud. It presents an opportunity to resolve the conflict, but lots of political determination and skill are needed from the dueling sides, the United States, and the international community to make it happen.

The veteran Palestinian leader died when the intifada he'd led against Israel since September 2000 had run its course. The Palestinians proved too weak to drive the Israelis out of the occupied territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by force. Their suicide bombings in Israeli cities created havoc, but failed to break the Israelis' will to fight.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians withstood Israel's military blows and its demands for unconditional surrender, and they achieved several goals, most notably Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to evacuate the Jewish settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank, scheduled for next summer. Diplomatically, the Palestinians created a global consensus around their aspirations of statehood, codified in the international road map. They also strengthened the legitimacy of the “Green Line,” the pre–1967 armistice demarcation, as the future border between Palestine and Israel, perhaps with some modifications.

Arafat had been a permanent presence in Israelis' worldview for decades. His image developed in stages. First, he was the quintessential enemy, an architect of atrocities, launching his terrorists and Katyusha rockets from across the border to kill Israelis at home and abroad. In 1982, Sharon put him under siege in Beirut; but the Lebanon War was highly unpopular in Israel, and Arafat reached out to Israelis for the first time. Exiled to Tunisia, he turned gradually into a statesman, grudgingly recognizing Israel and grudgingly recognized by more and more Israelis as an inevitable partner. The halcyon days came after the 1993 Oslo Accords. Yitzhak Rabin shook his hand on the White House lawn, and other Israeli leaders followed suit (except Sharon, who refused to do so). At the peak of Arafat's acceptance, in the late 1990s, he became a lovely character in a satiric puppet show on TV. But after violence broke out in 2000, he was demonized again, this time for good. Even left-wing politicians shunned him.

Arafat's disappearance from the scene takes away the central pillar of Israeli foreign policy in the past four years -- namely its assertion that “there is no Palestinian partner,” recited ever since Arafat rejected Ehud Barak's proposals at Camp David. The logic is simple: no partner, hence no negotiations. This perfectly suited Sharon, a firm believer in topographic security who would like to keep large chunks of West Bank terrain under Israeli control for as long as possible.

But Sharon's territorial aspirations remained hidden behind the official position of portraying Arafat as a hopeless terrorist and liar. Israeli politicians competed in suggesting his expulsion or assassination. The cabinet decided last year that Arafat is the main obstacle for reconciliation and should be removed. True to his old habits, Sharon decided to launch a fresh anti-Arafat propaganda campaign posthumously, to tell the world about Arafat's “murderous character,” lest he be remembered as a hero and freedom fighter.

All this is over now. Arafat's heirs, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), are veteran peace negotiators, untainted by terrorism, wearing suits and ties rather than their late mentor's uniform. Sharon met both many times, hosting them in his office and official residence and at his private ranch. Abbas, the new Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, has a perfect record of publicly opposing terrorism, having said recently that the intifada has been a mistake. Diplomacy and negotiations, rather than Qassam rockets and suicide bombers, are his favored tools to end the Israeli occupation.

His good reputation notwithstanding, Abbas is facing a formidable challenge. He must consolidate his power in a torn, violent society while convincing the Israelis of his ability to halt terrorist attacks. This is no easy task for any leader, even under better circumstances. But if Abbas succeeds, he would call Sharon's bluff and challenge Israel's pledges of flexibility.

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Sharon outlasted his lifelong rival Arafat. First, he persuaded President George W. Bush to boycott the Palestinian leader and advocate his replacement. Bush sanctioned Arafat's house arrest at Israeli gunpoint in Ramallah. Gradually, even European and Arab leaders, though identified with the Palestinian cause, turned away from Arafat. Now, having survived many political storms in Jerusalem, Sharon holds power and Arafat is gone. His departure, however, brings both an opportunity and a problem for the Israeli leader, bothered as he is with a minority coalition and party rebellion.

The “lack of partner” was Sharon's main argument, or excuse, for his unilateral steps: construction of the West Bank security barrier and launching the “Gaza-plus” pullout. Since Arafat's health collapsed, Sharon has been facing a growing domestic and international pressure to reconsider. Politicians from both right and left call on him to deal with a new “partner” rather than go it alone. Their motives are obviously different: Yossi Beilin, the left-wing leader, wants to negotiate a deeper withdrawal, while Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for putting the Gaza evacuation on hold and renegotiating from scratch.

Sharon sticks to his plan, arguing that any change on the other side is yet to be seen. In his eyes, Israel still has no partner and it cannot negotiate until the Palestinians have curbed terrorism and incitement and undergone reforms mandated by the road map. This position may buy Sharon some time, but soon he will be asked to facilitate the rule of Arafat's heirs with gestures, from lifting travel restrictions in Palestinian areas to releasing prisoners and allowing new Palestinian elections. Last year, Sharon's stinginess contributed to Abbas' downfall as the Palestinian Authority premier. Now, Israeli officials are begging Sharon to not repeat his mistake, but rather to help the moderates take power.

Next, there will be calls to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians. Sharon knows that giving the Gaza settlements to a credible partner could save Israel from a lot of trouble. Evacuation under fire will result in mutual bloodshed. But Abbas, and any other Palestinian leader, will not be satisfied with just Gaza, and will demand a clear linkage with the next step: a deep West Bank withdrawal and discussion of final-status issues like Jerusalem and refugees, which Sharon has tried to avoid. Because he gave away Gaza for free, Sharon would have to start negotiating about the West Bank settlements.

Here lies Sharon's main problem: He would like to stop the process after a modest disengagement. Having created the courageous precedent of settlement removal, Sharon prefers to leave the more sensitive stages to his successors. But with Arafat gone, he now needs to adopt himself to the new reality. Pinning his hope on Bush, Sharon wishes that the president will not sell him out to America's European and Arab friends, who demand a swift progress from Gaza to the West Bank and Jerusalem in return for mending their Iraq-stained relations with America.

In his first term, Bush went further than his predecessors in committing the United States to an independent Palestine. Learning the lesson of Bill Clinton's failure to achieve peace, Bush placed performance benchmarks on both sides, calling on the Palestinians to stop terrorism and get their governance act together, and imposing a settlement freeze on Israel. Bush's weakness was in his lack of stamina when his efforts were stalled by the parties. To the Palestinians' chagrin, Bush gave Sharon a free hand to crush the intifada, even if he forbade Israel from hurting Arafat or building its barrier deep inside the West Bank. In retrospect, Bush fulfilled his overriding interest, preventing the “spillover”

of the Israeli-Palestinian war to neighboring countries, risking U.S. regional interests.

In the past year, Bush has lent strong support to Sharon's disengagement plan. But since his re-election, and more so following Arafat's demise, Bush is under growing pressure to move faster on the road map. Apparently he will try to use the next few months as a buffer period, waiting for Sharon to complete his withdrawal while assisting the Abbas takeover of the Palestinians, through elections and other means. Washington will not overload Sharon, who struggles to survive politically and implement his current plan, with calls for additional settlement removals.

Only after Gaza is evacuated and the new Palestinian partner emerges will the time for the hard decisions about the next stage and the final status come. In the meantime, Israeli officials say that any show of the Palestinians' ability to get their act together, especially on security, will be immediately rewarded with reciprocal measures. Israelis recognize that a new era has begun, but they prefer to take it step by step, rather than in grand gestures.

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.