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A Period of Peril, Promise Forecast

Times Staff Writer

The death of Yasser Arafat could help break the logjam in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts and perhaps usher in a political realignment as well, Middle East analysts and officials say.

The transition period, though, will be perilous. It is likely to be marked not only by succession struggles among Palestinian factions, but also by the advent of long-suppressed change in a society that has seemed, like its late leader, to be somehow frozen in time.

Arafat, who died today, was very much in the mold of autocratic Middle Eastern leaders who surrendered power only in death.

Although the 75-year-old leader presided over a national movement rather than a nation, he was for decades synonymous, in the eyes of his people, with a Palestinian state-to-be.

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Arafat’s personal prestige among Palestinians lent him the authority to make momentous decisions, such as the adoption of the interim Oslo peace accords -- sealed with his famous handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 with the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin -- which were supposed to have culminated in Palestinian statehood.

But his status, critics say, also gave Arafat the ability to single-handedly confound peace efforts. Israel considered him the chief architect of the bloody Palestinian uprising that is now in its fifth year -- although senior Israeli policymakers privately acknowledged grave mistakes and missed opportunities on their side as well.

More than a year before Arafat’s death, Israel and the Palestinians had simply stopped talking to each other. The last high-level meeting took place in summer 2003, between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, who was then Palestinian Authority prime minister. All but a few informal negotiating tracks had dried up long before that.

“This is a golden opportunity for Israel to change the course of things,” said Ephraim Sneh, an opposition Israeli lawmaker and onetime deputy defense minister. Arafat’s demise “demands accommodation with the new Palestinian leadership,” he said. “This is a real chance, and we will regret it for generations if we miss it.”

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But no one believes that reestablishing any rapport will be easy .

“A window of opportunity will open, but not in the immediate future, as Arafat’s successor will not be one person, but rather a group of people who will together fill the roles Arafat held for himself,” said Amos Malka, former head of Israeli army intelligence. “Both sides need time before moving forward.”

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian observers discount the possibility of an outbreak of serious violence as Palestinians jostle for power in the post-Arafat era. Even though his influence waned in his final years, particularly in the Gaza Strip, Arafat was always able to maintain a fragile equilibrium among competing factions.

“It is clear what a dangerous stage through which our nation is passing,” said Sheik Ibrahim Moderis, the imam at a leading mosque in Gaza City. “No one can deny that Arafat has been a kind of safety valve.”

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The first test of any new Israeli-Palestinian relationship could come even before Arafat is laid to rest. Israel is deeply worried about an outbreak of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in connection with his funeral.

In the meantime, many Israeli commentators are urging that army activity be kept to a minimum to avoid sparking an ill-timed confrontation.

“Clearly, Israel must do everything to restrain military activity -- it must not initiate new operations, and should put off previously planned ones,” military affairs commentator Zeev Schiff wrote in the Haaretz newspaper. “The army must only react to ‘ticking bombs’ that endanger the lives of Israelis.”

If the two sides can avoid slipping back into the kind of all-out fighting that characterized the earlier years of the intifada, the main Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, may seek to strike at least an informal truce with Israel.

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Arafat’s death could provide a face-saving means for Hamas, in particular, to shift its emphasis away from armed struggle and toward seeking a share of political power in a new Palestinian leadership structure. In the last 18 months, Israel has assassinated nearly the entire Hamas leadership in Gaza, and has eliminated dozens of its senior field operatives.

Analyst Shaul Mishal of Tel Aviv University said he thought a coalition of Hamas and Fatah -- Arafat’s faction -- was by no means unlikely. Much of their past enmity stemmed from deep-seated personal animosity between Arafat and Hamas leaders such as Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in March.

“What has seemed unthinkable might become a very plausible development in the future,” Mishal said.

Over the last several years, Arafat had made no discernible effort to rein in Hamas and Islamic Jihad as they pressed ahead with a campaign of suicide bombings in Israeli cities and towns. Instead, faced with burgeoning popular support for Hamas, he in effect competed with them. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia affiliated with Fatah, also began staging suicide attacks.

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Sharon has long insisted that he will have no dealings with any Palestinian leader who refuses to crack down on the militant groups. But Arafat’s successor or successors risk undermining their own domestic support if they appear to be knuckling under to Israeli demands, especially early on in the transition period.

Arafat’s death leaves Sharon in an awkward position as he fights to move ahead with his plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Faced with furious opposition within his Likud Party, the prime minister has for months argued that there was no point in trying to win any Palestinian concessions in exchange for giving up the territory because as long as Arafat remained in power, Israel had no negotiating partner. A leadership change undercuts that rationale.

Sharon’s camp is said to be worried that with President Bush having won reelection, he might press the prime minister to return to the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the “road map.” Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have moved in any serious way to implement the plan’s requirements, which include Israel’s dismantling of more than 100 illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, mistrust of Bush has mounted as he has drawn closer to Sharon. Palestinians were incensed when Bush in April endorsed the Israeli leader’s stated goal of retaining control of large West Bank settlement blocks in exchange for giving up Gaza.

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The demise of Arafat has already brought predictions of greater engagement by Arab neighbors in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Arafat’s relations with nearly all Arab leaders were poisoned by dislike and distrust. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and others have stayed largely on the sidelines partly because of their reluctance to deal with Arafat, as well as Sharon.

“Mubarak considered [Arafat] an obstacle. King Abdullah never stopped suspecting him of plotting to ignite Jordan. Rulers of the [Persian] Gulf emirates never forgave Arafat for his cooperation with [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War,” commentator Smadar Peri wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya did not let Arafat into their countries for over a decade. Lebanon ... considers itself a victim of Arafat’s terror, and [Syrian President] Bashar Assad inherited his father’s scorn and loathing of Arafat,” Peri added. Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez, as Syria’s leader.

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A change of leadership alone is no guarantee of Palestinian reconciliation with Israel, said Israeli analyst Daniel Polisar, academic director of the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem. Perhaps more crucial, he and others said, was the opportunity for social and political reforms -- persistently stifled by Arafat -- which in turn could galvanize peace efforts.

“Arafat did his best to marginalize those forces in Palestinian society interested in a more open system,” Polisar said. “Every time there’s been a push for allowing greater political and civil liberties in Palestinian society, the answer Arafat gave is that attention to such issues would hurt Palestinian national interests in the conflict with Israel.”

Many analysts have pointed out that with Arafat’s death, Israel no longer has a scapegoat for the diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians, and for the ensuing bloodletting.

“In a certain sense, Arafat was a convenient adversary,” political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot. “It was so easy to dismiss him, to demonize him.... Now it will all be much more complicated.”

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