A Second Chance in the Mideast

History’s second chances are seldom as good as the first, as many Palestinians now realize. But Yasser Arafat’s death offers Palestinians the historic opportunity to obtain a state of their own. They aren’t likely to get as much as they would have under a deal Arafat foolishly rejected four years ago, but at least a people whose territory has been occupied by Israel for the last 37 years will get a chance to live in peace and freedom on their own land.

Arafat’s death also deprives Israel and the U.S. of the excuse they’ve been using for years to avoid negotiations: that there’s no one to talk to on the Palestinian side. It will take time to determine who the new leader will be -- or if there will be more than one -- but Israel should help the Palestinians hold elections, the only way to establish legitimacy for a new Palestinian Authority chief.

Palestinians confirmed Wednesday before Arafat’s death that the speaker of the parliament, Rouhi Fatouh, would be caretaker of the authority for 60 days. No one expects Fatouh to emerge as the ultimate choice. A more likely leader is Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei or his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas. Either will need to reach out to younger Palestinians like former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan if he wants a strong, unified governing body.

There has been a notable split between the young and old guards among Palestinians, with those 40 and younger critical of the failure of Arafat and his colleagues to make political or economic progress. The Palestinian Authority was formed only a decade ago; the position of prime minister was instituted -- over Arafat’s initial objections -- only last year. If the authority fragments, Israel will be right to wonder whether it has a real partner in talks for a Palestinian state.


But if Israel removes roadblocks and reduces army patrols in occupied territories to allow politicians to campaign and elections to be held, it can have such a partner. The alternative is a situation nearly as grim for the Israelis as the Palestinians. Continuation of the chaotic and corrupt leadership of the occupied territories would lead only to a deepening of poverty there, meaning more support for groups like Hamas -- which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel but wins respect from Palestinians by doling out charity. Israel’s strategy of assassinating Hamas’ leaders has done little to reduce the group’s power or appeal; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government would be better off helping moderate Palestinians undercut Islamic radicals by offering graphic examples of progress, like elections and jobs.

The Bush administration also needs to renew its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The president should publicly support elections and push Sharon to help clear the ground for the balloting. Israel and the U.S. say they want a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state. With Arafat gone, the chance presents itself again.