After Arafat

The chairman’s departure will transform America’s role in the Middle East.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has promised to return from Paris, but his illness has apparently advanced to a stage in which both his body and mind are wracked. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports off-the-record accounts of senior PA sources describing Arafat’s current mental state as a “chronic weakness from which it is not clear that he can recover.” It’s believed that in the event of his death, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will replace Arafat as chairman, and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) will stay on as prime minister.

Both Abbas and Qureia are ostensibly more moderate than Arafat, which means that after his death they might be willing to enter meaningful peace talks with the Israelis. The problem is that while they both have bases of support, neither of them wields enough power to deliver a peace deal. If they could not stand up to Arafat himself, they will not be able to sway the people over whom Arafat claimed leadership for four decades and whose support he still feared losing if he made a peace deal. By refusing to clamp down on the armed groups or even to put an end to the anti-Israeli incitement in Palestinian schools, mosques, and the media, Arafat did not prepare the Palestinians to accept peace—not his and certainly not that of another Palestinian leader.

The man who essentially created the Palestinian nation and put its cause at the center of world attention will leave his people a political culture in which the only constants are violence and corruption. As Barry Rubin wrote recently in Arafat’s End, “Having refused to create viable institutions or to name a successor for so long, the result [of Arafat’s death] may be chaos.” Without a successor or political institutions—like regular, free elections; an independent judiciary; and checks on executive power—to create and sustain political authority, the upcoming struggle for leadership will consist largely of various groups and factions vying with each other to establish supremacy. They will be judged largely according to how forcefully they are capable of warring against the common enemy: Israel. It is a variety of civil war in which the armed groups will be killing Israelis while they are in fact fighting each other. This is what Hamas and Islamic Jihad have done since their inception, and, as this article by Joshua Landis shows, it is also the model the Syrians followed in the Arabs’$2 1948 war with Israel. Michael Doran’s Pan-Arabism Before Nasserargues that the Egyptians did the same thing in the same war. What appears to be the enemy in Arab wars is often just a proxy in the struggles of Arab politics.

After the violence, whichever leader emerges will probably be strong enough to make peace with Israel, but the circumstances under which he will come to power—targeting Israel—will make it very hard for him to create a climate conducive to peace. In any case, it will likely be a long time before any one individual proves his leadership decisively. Yet more time will have to pass before that leader is capable, assuming he is willing, of bringing his people around to peace.

So, what does all this mean for U.S. policymakers?

Recently Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol have argued that a John Kerry presidency will seek to please our once and future European allies by putting more pressure on Israel. Krauthammer understands the phrase “peace process” to mean forcing Israel to make concessions at the bargaining table. But there is no bargaining table right now, and when there was one, Israel, like the Palestinian Authority, violated the spirit of the Oslo Process. For instance, Israel did not stop settlement expansion and Arafat did not dismantle the armed groups. When Arafat dithered away Clinton’s last proposal in January 2001, the end result was that there was no deal and so no concessions. So what concessions does Krauthammer now envision Kerry ramming down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s throat? It is not reasonable to believe a U.S. president would require any Israeli leader to, say, give up East Jerusalem just because the Europeans think it would be cool and the new president really likes the Europeans.

Granted, it’s annoying that the Kerry campaign keeps talking about sending a special envoy to the Middle East, as if that plan amounts to much more than a gaudy Band-Aid at this point. And even in the best of circumstances, neither Jimmy Carter nor James Baker nor even Richard Holbrooke is going to do much good as a peace-broker. The fact is, there is no real difference between the two candidates’ positions on Israel. Indeed, a number of Arab journalists suggest, with some justification, that Kerry will be even more pro-Israel than Bush.

The incumbent has been maligned in the U.S. and international press for both neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and favoring the Israelis. In reality, even after Clinton’s efforts showed that Arafat was incapable or unwilling to agree to a final deal, Bush himself still sent envoys to the region; traveled there himself to meet with Arab and Palestinian leaders, though not Arafat; and was the first U.S. president to call for an independent Palestinian state. But if Arafat dies in the coming weeks or months, none of that will matter.

Regardless of who wins the election Nov. 2, the next president is going to need to take an active role in the conflict—but he is going to have to play a part no American commander in chief has played before. Since there is no one on the Palestinian side who can seriously negotiate, there is no peace process, and, for the foreseeable future, almost no chance of peace. The next president is not going to earn his bona fides by acting as a fair mediator between the two sides but by serving as a guidance counselor. He is going to have his hands full trying to restrain Israeli leadership in the face of the Palestinian violence that will serve for all practical purposes as an electoral campaign. It will be even more of a challenge to cultivate a legitimate Palestinian leadership that might one day come to the negotiating table. The president is going to have to devote a lot of attention to the Palestinians themselves, outside of any prospective negotiations. He’s going to have to learn how to listen to what they want and how to shape their hopes and desires for a Palestinian state. He’s going to have to hold hands. This is a role with no glamour, no public acclaim, no chance of a Nobel Peace Prize. There’s little chance of even living to see all this demanding, thankless work come to fruition. It’s going to demand that the president of the United States put aside his ego.

In The Missing Peace, former Bush and Clinton special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross observes, “The paradox of the American role is that it may be most important when an agreement is least likely.” This is an excellent policy for the next president to pursue, one that will, by necessity, have to move away from our past obsession with finding comprehensive solutions to a crisis that has always demanded instead careful management.

Arab regimes, as Ross explains, have done very little to advance the cause of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Since they do not derive their political authority from the people they govern, they have no popular source of legitimacy to get out in front and actually lead. Even if Arab rulers wanted peace between the two nations—and Ross says that was the wish of the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia during the course of Oslo—they cannot afford to talk about making peace with Israel for fear of making themselves vulnerable to their own populations.

The most obvious way to create political legitimacy is through free elections. Regardless of how people judge the neocon fantasy of a democratic Iraq, or what John Kerry might think right now, the next president of the United States needs to recognize that promoting democracy in the Arab world is not a luxury, it’s part of his job.