After Arafat, which way do the winds of change blow?

Power struggle in the Middle East
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cool lynx

Without Yasser Arafat, the individual who has dominated Palestinian politics for the past 36 years, the Middle East may be entering the political equivalent of the "perfect storm."

As of Friday, Mr. Arafat remained in a coma in a French hospital, "between life and death," reports ABCNews.

As a consequence of Arafat's faltering condition, The Associated Press reports that "the Bush administration is preparing a strategy for resumed Mideast peacemaking that rests heavily on an emerging core of Palestinian leaders taking charge of keeping order and nurturing an embryonic government."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged President Bush "to dedicate much more effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," reports Albawaba, based in Jordan.

Blair, who was congratulating the American leader on the latter's second term in office in a brief speech Wednesday night, described the need for such a solution as the 'single most pressing political challenge in our world today.'
The New York Times reports that, for US administration officials, events "seem to be coming together to change the disinclination of Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to get involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations."
First, pressure on the president from allies, especially in Europe and the Arab world, is considered certain to increase now that the American election is over.
Second, is Mr. Arafat's illness and the emergence of two Palestinian moderates, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister who is head of the cabinet, to run Palestinian affairs while Mr. Arafat is in Paris. The Bush administration regards both as suitable partners in any peace talks.
There is opportunity and danger in "Arafat's removal from the Middle East pollitical landscape," reports The Times of London. A weakened Palestinian nation could plunge into "further crisis" or even civil war; but conversely, the way may be "opened ...for the first real peace effort in the region for years," reports the Times.

With the expected passing of Mr. Arafat, the first challenge confronting Palestinians would be the "major problem" of which individual, or group would assume the leadership, reports the BBC.

There is no clear line of succession for the Palestinian Authority or the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella group for the Palestinian national movement. He has not designated a deputy or successor, perhaps fearing that an impatient heir apparent might be a threat to him. The traditional 40 days of mourning will be observed before politics can be resumed.
The Washington Post explains how the temporary duties of Mr. Qureia and Mr.Mahmoud Abbas would shake out. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports "The prevailing assessment in the territories is that no one will try to challenge Abbas and Qureia during the first several weeks after Arafat's death." But as a precaution,
Both have been assigned special security details by Force 17, Arafat's presidential guard. In addition, the heads of the PA security services declared a state of emergency Thursday, and security personnel were out in force in both Ramallah and Gaza.
Israeli Defense Forces "were on alert, but that no special deployments were made," reports the Jerusalem Post. There are orders "to monitor the situation [in the West Bank and Gaza] but not to take any provocative actions."
[Israeli] Officers have said that the circumstances of Arafat's death will dictate the measures to be taken, as per the army's contingency plan, according to which Arafat's death abroad of apparently natural causes is the most comfortable scenario.
One thing remains constant about the Middle East, says Gulf News in its analysis of the current crisis. Nothing is easy and nothing is accomplished without friction and tough compromise.
'Yasser Arafat, in good health or in dilapidating sickness, is a thorn in Ariel Sharon's side.' For a start, his absence, temporary or permanent, has the potential of throwing a monkey wrench into the Israeli leader's much-trumpeted plan for withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of Israeli colonies in this overpopulated Palestinian region. Sharon will now have to negotiate the terms of his pullback with a new Palestinian leader, or 'peace partner,' who will no doubt make certain that this will be the first step towards an end to the Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Many Palestinians remain concerned that "the political vacuum that Arafat leaves behind after decades of jealously guarding power and undercutting rivals could trigger serious internal conflict," reports Gulf News. Arafat is "irreplaceable" the Times of London quotes Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, as saying, "because he was the father of the Palestinian nationalmovement..."
'After the deaths of each of the old Arab leaders people predicted doomsday scenarios - for Jordan after King Hussein, Morocco after King Hassan and Syria after Hafez al-Assad,' he said. 'But normal life has continued. We will see the same thing after Arafat. I don't think the place will descend into civil war. The Palestinians will still be there,' he said.

World faces a Mideast minus Arafat (The Christian Science Monitor)
Views clash: hero, rogue (Denver Post)
Palestinians prepare for Arafat funeral (UPI/B>)

Feedback appreciated. E-mail Jim Bencivenga


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