What's Next?

by Khalil Shikaki
November 12 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- As Palestinians and others contemplate life after Yasser Arafat, focus is likely to be placed on short-term consequences. There is a good reason for this: The Palestinians have known no other leader for three decades. Fears of anarchy and infighting, a collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and an escalation in Palestinian-Israeli violence are likely to color people's assessment of the day after. But there is reason to believe the succession process could be non-violent. Indeed, it is not the next few weeks that one should worry about, but rather what happens six months down the road. With help from Israel, the U.S. and the international community, and -- first and foremost -- with national elections, Palestinians can make the post Arafat-era one of viable peace-making and state-building.

Arafat's passing due to illness, rather than violence, facilitates matters for those who have to share power after him. The Palestine Liberation Organization's legitimacy, its norms and rules, as well as the PA's Basic Law, are all likely to determine Palestinian choices in the short run. This means the consolidation of the set-up that emerged in the aftermath of Arafat's illness, with Mahmoud Abbas, former prime minister and No. 2 in the PLO hierarchy, taking control of the PLO and Fatah institutions, and Ahmed Qureia, the current PM, gaining greater control over the PA's finances, bureaucracy and security services. Rauhi Fattouh, the speaker, became interim president of the PA yesterday in accordance with the Basic Law, but he is too weak to play any role other than a ceremonial one. In the short run, however, it is doubtful that the whole transitional leadership will be able to translate its formal authority into real power.

Indeed, little policy change is likely in the near future; for now, no one will dare alter Arafat's path. But things could change if and when those replacing him gain confidence in a few months. This would be particularly true if the Israelis do not make things more difficult by continuing their assassination policy and incursions.

A transition phase is now underway. Those in charge are the old guard of nationalists, but the future will be shaped more by the nationalist young guard, and by Islamists who will begin to assert themselves. This could happen peacefully, as the old guard will be much weaker without Arafat. But transition could turn violent if the old guard insists on retaining power for long and if no progress is seen in the peace process. The Islamists will become bolder -- taking advantage of Arafat's absence, and thinking that a nationalist split will provide a chance to become the mainstream among the Palestinians. Yet if the old guard manages to move the peace process forward and hold national elections, say within six months, it may have a very good chance of forging a coalition with the next generation of nationalists and to weaken the Islamists. But without national elections soon, Palestinian domestic conditions could be bleak.

U.S. and Israeli opposition to elections centered in the past on concerns about Arafat's re-election. But now, with Arafat gone, it is conceivable that those who opposed elections in the past may become even more determined to oppose them. The succession process has brought to transitional power two moderate and pragmatic old-guard members. Many in Israel and abroad may argue that since we now have viable negotiating partners in place, why rock the boat by conducting elections which could weaken the old guard and Fatah, replace moderates with militant nationalists, and bring Islamists into parliament? Those thinking along these lines would be making a big mistake.

In the next few months, the transitional leadership will confront major challenges. The most difficult and immediate is to maintain law and order, and to prevent the collapse of PA institutions, particularly in Gaza. It will also have to put together an internal cease-fire package, reorganize the security services, and show willingness to implement some of the Palestinian roadmap security commitments. Parallel to this, the new leadership needs to develop a Palestinian negotiating strategy that addresses Israel's disengagement plan and the Quartet roadmap, and to present the Palestinians as viable negotiating partners. The transitional leadership has no chance of dealing effectively with any of these challenges without putting in motion a credible election process.

But to be able to hold these elections, and -- importantly for the future of the peace process -- to affect their outcome positively, Israel, the U.S., and the rest of the international community need to extend a helping hand to the transitional leadership as it confronts potential rivals. With Arafat gone, two developments will be set in motion. The young guard nationalists will rush to displace the old guard, leading to further political fragmentation within the nationalist camp and perhaps to violent infighting. In Gaza, they will probably seek to physically eliminate those senior old-guard members who challenge them. Even among the young guard, those who view Mr. Abbas as unfaithful to Arafat's legacy will see his leadership as a threat to their interests and will seek to challenge his legitimacy. More serious will be the transformation of the Islamists -- from a long-term threat to the hegemony of the nationalists to a potential medium-term, or even short-term, threat. The Islamists will quickly pose a true strategic threat not only to the dominance of the nationalists but also to the future of the peace process. Both young guard nationalists and Islamists will seek to destabilize the post-Arafat political and security environment. Such a threat is sufficient to deter the old guard from taking any initiative leading to deeper political stagnation in Palestinian politics and in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

To remain in power, Mr. Abbas must immediately forge a coalition with the young guard by setting a date for elections, and by allowing immediate internal Fatah elections. He will also need Israeli help -- the release of Marwan Barghouti, which would allow the consolidation of the Palestinian nationalist camp, facilitate a cease-fire deal, and enable Fatah to deal with Hamas and other Islamists.

To be able to deal effectively with the Islamists, the combined nationalists will need to present the Palestinians with a credible peace and state-building program. Here, the Bush administration needs to affirm its commitment to a viable Palestinian state and a fairly detailed permanent status package. It needs to outline a more engaged policy, one that pays attention to Palestinian, and not only Israeli, concerns. Israel can make things much easier for Mr. Abbas and Mr. Qureia if it were to start immediate negotiations with them, instead of waiting for them to demonstrate a break with Arafat's legacy. In this case, Palestinian policy change would be quick to come.

When elections take place, and if they occur within the more positive context outlined above, Mahmoud Abbas would have a good chance of being elected president of the PA -- despite his current lack of popularity. The young guards are likely to form the government, perhaps with Mr. Barghouti leading a coalition with moderate independents. The Islamists are likely to seek an effective opposition role. In the post-Arafat era, the Palestinians may finally get the democracy and accountable governance they deserve.

Mr. Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

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