WASHINGTON — With Yasser Arafat plagued by a mysterious medical condition, the Bush administration is pressing the Israeli government to begin cultivating a new Palestinian leadership and to launch talks regarding the territories.
Sources close to the administration said that in recent days, Bush and his aides have been urging Sharon to coordinate Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza with moderate Palestinians who might fill the leadership void in Arafat’s absence. Sharon already has announced that he would be ready to resume peace negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership committed to fighting terrorism.
Still, the rise of a post-Arafat regime could hamper relations between Jerusalem and the Bush administration, if the two governments ultimately disagree over the credibility of the new Palestinian leaders.
Sharon insists that Israel will only negotiate with Palestinian leaders who “act to dismantle the terror infrastructure,” even if it means pulling out of Gaza unilaterally. Israeli sources said that some coordination already exists, albeit on a low level.
The Bush administration has been generally accepting of Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza without significant coordination with the Palestinians. But Arafat’s possible demise and the ascension of a more moderate Palestinian leadership could change the equation.
During the campaign, Kerry and his campaign surrogates repeatedly backed up Sharon’s view that Arafat was not a legitimate partner. But Kerry also vowed to appoint a special Middle East envoy to help kick-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and several of his potential advisers argued vehemently in favor of Sharon coordinating the Gaza pullout with the Palestinians.
Israeli sources said that some coordination already exists, albeit on a low level.
Arafat is currently hospitalized in France for a condition his doctors say is curable. But according to sources, Israeli and American foreign policy analysts agree that Arafat’s sickness is likely to bring his effective leadership to an end, whether he dies soon or is simply too ill to continue running the Palestinian Authority. Israeli and American officials also agree that the effective end of the Arafat era would usher in new opportunities to revive the comatose peace process, sources said.
Initial reactions in Jerusalem to the crisis in Palestinian leadership seem to confirm claims that Washington and Jerusalem are both optimistic about the potential for a new stage in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, reportedly told the Cabinet that “with all due caution and modesty,” Arafat’s possible demise might bring about an end to the intifada that began in 2000. Sharon said that Israel would be willing to resume negotiations over the “road map” peace plan with a Palestinian leadership that will fight terrorism effectively. According to some Israeli press reports, Sharon also reportedly ordered the military to do its best to avoid violent escalation in the territories as the Palestinian leadership crisis plays out, and reportedly asked members of his cabinet not to talk publicly about possible post-Arafat scenarios.
Responding to potential regime change in the Palestinian Authority could emerge as a top foreign policy challenge for whichever candidate is ultimately declared the winner of Tuesday’s election.
“It is a very important challenge for the U.S.,” said Stephen Cohen, a scholar-in-residence of the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum. Cohen has served as an informal intermediary between Israel and its Arab neighborhoods. Citing what he described as a “realignment” in both the Israeli and Palestinian political arenas, Cohen said that “the U.S. will have to be very subtle, and yet much more deeply involved in the guts of both Israeli and Palestinian politics.”
A careful, determined American approach could help bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiations table, according to Middle East analysts who have promoted peace talks. If, in fact, Arafat’s successors are willing to increase the P.A.’s efforts to curb terrorism, “the only U.S. policy option would be to start with a modification of the three important mistakes of the Gaza disengagement plan,” said Aaron David Miller, former senior State Department adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations, who now heads the Seeds of Peace youth organization.
First, Miller said, the United States should get Israel to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians “both before, during and after, in a way that makes sense to Palestinians.” Second, he said, a substantive link should be made between the Gaza withdrawal and a disengagement process in the West Bank, “to give Palestinians the sense that in fact there is political and economic hope.” Finally, Miller argued, an American effort should be made “to link the entire Gaza process to a broader political process” such as the American-authored “road map” peace plan.
Sharon plans for a complete Israeli pullout from Gaza and the dismantling of four small West Bank settlements.
Palestinians are hoping that an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and an intensification of international involvement in the peace process will precede the Palestinian municipal and national elections that have been promised for the past several months. In anticipation of elections, the Palestinian Authority has launched a voter-registration campaign.
Not all analysts believe that holding elections will help restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that rejects Israel’s right to exist, has already announced its intention to run candidates for office. Recent Palestinian public opinion polls show a sharp increase in popular support for Hamas.
“If Arafat creates a situation where [former Palestinian prime minister] Mahmoud Abbas and [current Prime Minister] Ahmad Qurei have some authority, don’t mess around with it, grab it,” said Barry Rubin, a professor of Middle East politics at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and the co-author of the recently published book, “Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography.”
“If you have any moderates in position,” Rubin said, “then run with it.”
Several analysts questioned whether Arafat’s current health problems would spark any real movement.
Sharon prefers unilateralism to negotiations, said Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
As for the Palestinian side of the equation, negotiating with the Israelis would present significant political problems for any Arafat successor, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
“Anyone who succeeds Arafat,” Alterman said, “will need to show the same dedication to the Palestinian national cause and the same steadfastness that people associate with Arafat, for fear of being accused of being a traitor or a surrenderer.”