November 5, 2004
by Meyrav Wurmser
Even as the world waits for a definitive word about Yasser Arafat's health, renewed calls for Arab-Israeli peacemaking are now in motion. Already one hears that Mr. Arafat was the obstacle to peace and his removal clears the path. But we need to be cautious; after Mr. Arafat, we will confront his legacy.
Ever since Mr. Arafat returned from exile in Tunis in 1994, he has worked systematically to centralize power under his control by leveling the diffuse political, economic, social, and religious structures that have existed in Palestinian society for centuries. Those complex structures allowed Palestinians to cope with major changes, such as the influx of refugees in 1948 and Israel's takeover in 1967.
A variegated civil society was a barrier to Arafat's power and an anathema to his radical pan-Arabist ideology of perpetual struggle. When Arafat returned, he erased those barriers. In their place, he built an all-encompassing system of centralized clientism and internal violence. All roads of his reign of guns and money led back to his personal power alone. And parallel to replacing complex society and politics with a structure of personal patronage, Arafat dangerously reduced Palestinian identity - by necessity - to an ideology of resentment, anger, and victimization. The radical upheaval defining his ideology demanded an external enemy to justify the internal dislocation, distortions, sacrifice, and ultimately repression. Palestinian society is now both hollowed out and energized by hate.
Having placed himself at the center of everything, Mr. Arafat could not tolerate competition. Threatened by any dominant figure, Mr. Arafat did not appoint a successor. After his relocation to a hospital in France, a succession struggle begins among various Palestinian forces. According to the Palestinian Basic Law, if the president of the Palestinian Authority becomes incapacitated, his powers are automatically transferred to the chairman of the Legislative Council (the Palestinian parliament) for 60 days until new elections can take place. But the man who currently holds this position, Rawhi Fatooh, is a relatively junior political player who is not seasoned enough to be able to enforce the law. Two other players, the PLO's Executive Committee Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Prime Minister Ahmad Qure'i (Abu 'Alaa), reportedly have joined forces to change the law in a manner that would allow them to assume power. But, despite their seniority and experience, it is not likely that they will be able to stay in power for a prolonged time. The two, who belong to the "outsiders," came back to the West Bank from Tunis with Mr. Arafat following the signing of the Oslo accords and are resented by the local population, the "insiders," who consider the wealthy pair corrupt and out of touch with the concerns of average people. Moreover, they are politicians who, unlike Arafat, are not respected as symbols of the Palestinian revolution. This leaves them open to challenge by various key factions of Palestinian society, including the multiple security forces, armed militias, and the prisoners' families who could challenge their power base.
At present, a collapse of Palestinian politics into anarchy is likely. The variety of armed security forces and organizations - which Arafat intentionally did not bring under any kind of central control - are likely to act independently and in an uncoordinated manner. This served Mr. Arafat's "divide and rule" policy. He could afford to embark on this policy because the various organizations' sense of loyalty toward him kept things from spinning out of control. But Mr. Arafat's removal unhinges any concept of centralized loyalty. Moreover, Palestinian society will have to deal with a new threat: the groups of armed youth - some as young as 12 or 13 - who do not owe loyalty to any of the current Palestinian political players. They are a new and important factor, which is likely to play a key role in unraveling Palestinian politics. These youths did not even answer to Arafat. After his removal from the stage they are likely to grow in numbers and influence. Anyone attempting to control Palestinian society will have to confront them.
In short, the structure that Mr. Arafat built - together with key institutions of Palestinian society - will perish with him. The only surviving commonality among most Palestinians will be resentment toward Israel. These feelings will only continue to grow if and when Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza. The withdrawal would mean that Palestinians will no longer be able to come to work in Israel. With almost nonexistent sources of employment and income, frustrated Palestinians are likely to resort to even more violence against each other and, ultimately, Israel.
It is not surprising that the most popular Palestinian figure these days is Marwan Barghouti - a terrorist leader who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail prison for his role in several terrorist attacks. For Palestinians, he is the new emerging symbol of the struggle against Israel. Although, if he becomes the new Palestinian leader, he will only deepen anti-Israel sentiments and make a peaceful solution to the conflict much more difficult, there is much talk in both Washington and Jerusalem which pegs Barghouti as the only candidate strong enough to prevent the collapse of Palestinian society. A Barghouti reign promises not only a continuation of the armed struggle against Israel, but also a reversal of President Bush's forward strategy of bringing freedom to the area.
Mr. Arafat's departure will not merely leave a gap in the system. It leaves no system. Even so, many observers in Israel, Europe and Washington seem to believe that Mr. Arafat's illness removed the last obstacle to peace. It has not. After Mr. Arafat, Palestinian society - with outside help - must be given a chance and breathing room to lay its new foundations. This enterprise will be accompanied by some upheaval, mistakes and dislocations. Plunging into peacemaking or trying to replace the societal vacuum with a new strong man will only perpetuate the distortions and ills of Palestinian society. Bringing Mr. Arafat back to the Palestinian territories during the Oslo years placed peace ahead of democracy. It left us with neither. The best of intentions in making peace in the aftermath of Arafat could again pave the road to hell. Now is the time to focus on freedom; peace will eventually follow on its foundations - as it had in war torn Europe last century.
This article appeared in the November 5, 2004 New York Sun.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.
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