After Arafat

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I’m reminded of the story about the time Arafat went to a fortune teller. She looked at his palm and said, “Very interesting. You're going to die on a Jewish holiday.”

“Really, which Jewish holiday?” Arafat asked.

The fortune teller replied, “Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.”

Well, it is likely to be a short-lived holiday for Israelis because they will soon face the reality of the post-Arafat era and it is by no means clear that it will be cause for a celebration.

Given that the Palestinian Authority was a dictatorship, and that there is no designated successor, we have no idea yet who will become the next leader of the Palestinians.

The most likely candidates, however, are well-known, and none of them are people you see on American television professing their interest in peace with Israel. On the contrary, many of the candidates to replace Arafat could be worse.

To get an idea of who is the most likely successor, you have to consider why Arafat was the leader of the Palestinians in the first place. It certainly wasn’t because of his good looks, charm and charisma. He ran the Palestinian Authority because he had the most guns.

Say what you will about Arafat, but when he stole nearly $1 billion in international aid meant for the Palestinian people, he didn’t spend it on lavish Saddam-like palaces (okay, he did give his wife about $100,000 a month to live the high life in Paris). Instead, Arafat used much of that money to pay off the 40,000 or more men with guns to be loyal to him.

The most likely successor to Arafat will be the person who either gains control of the money to buy that loyalty or the person with the second most guns. That is why every list of possible successors has featured the heads of the various Palestinian security and intelligence services in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is a mobocracy and the most likely scenario is that the mob bosses will now fight it out to see who will take Arafat’s place as godfather of the Palestinians.

Interestingly, Israel discovered some months ago that much of the weaponry being smuggled from Egypt into Gaza was not intended for the use of terrorists against Israel, but was actually meant for some of these warlords in preparation for the anticipated gang warfare following Arafat’s demise.

Depending on the victor, this bloodletting may be good for both Israel and the Palestinians. While folks like Abu Mazen have consistently said they wouldn’t start a civil war, the truth is that may be exactly what the Palestinians need to establish a central authority that can make peace. No Palestinian can assert control without defeating the Islamic fundamentalists and dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. Unchecked, the Islamists will subvert the Palestinian political system and persist in violence against Israel that will preclude any negotiations.

If one of the warlords succeeds in winning power, he may become a partner for negotiations. At least one of the security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan, is considered a potential interlocutor, but it is also possible that the winner of a power struggle will be a radical who is committed to the same destructive policies as Arafat.

So long as the Palestinians do not allow their internal conflict to spill over into Israel, the Israelis should try to stay out of the way. Israel, however, will have no obligation to negotiate with a new Palestinian leader unless he is committed to peace and a two-state solution.

Many people will be rooting for the PA’s first prime minister, Abu Mazen, or his successor, Abu Alaa, to take control because they are viewed as relative moderates with whom a deal could be struck. They were unable to do anything so long as Arafat was alive and in control of all the security forces, but, even now that they have been chosen as caretakers, they may be too weak to hold power because neither enjoys popular support or the loyalty of the security forces.

Ideally, the Palestinians would hold a democratic election that allows the people to choose their leader. With Arafat out of the picture, it’s conceivable international monitors could insure a relatively free election; however, the outcome may not be the selection of anyone interested in peace with Israel. More important, unless all the armed factions agree to respect the results, the new president will be impotent.

The biggest mistake the United States could make would be to quickly jump into the breach and try to influence events. First, if the U.S. or Israel expresses favoritism toward any Palestinian, it will be the kiss of death for that poor fellow. Second, until it is clear that someone is in control of the entire Palestinian political, financial, and security apparatus, Israel should not be expected to take any new steps.

If a new Palestinian leader emerges and displays the courage of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein by demonstrating that he is interested in peace by both word and deed, Israel can be expected to reciprocate by taking confidence-building measures and entering into negotiations.

One fundamental prerequisite to peace remains unchanged in the post-Arafat era, and that is the road map and Oslo requirement that Palestinian terrorism cease. Ending the violence is the ultimate test of the leadership of the next Palestinian president.