QUIETING THE STREET
Who Needs Arafat?
The world could hardly be worse without the PLO chairman.
BY CAROLINE B. GLICK
Monday, December 17, 2001
TEL AVIV--Last week, in the wake of yet another massacre of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists, the Israeli security cabinet announced it was severing relations with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Although it has been obvious for some time that Mr. Arafat is an obstacle, not a means, to peace in the Middle East, most policy makers have been loath to voice this simple truth. The main concern is that while Mr. Arafat is clearly a source of instability, his replacement could be even worse. Many argue that the Palestinian Islamic terrorist group Hamas, which overtly rejects Israel's right to exist, is the most likely successor to Mr. Arafat's leadership.
Given the Palestinian Authority's public complacency and private cooperation with Hamas in its attacks against Israel, a growing number of Israelis now greet the possibility of a Hamas takeover with the unblinking response of "so what?" As retired Israeli general and terrorism expert Meir Dagan explained to me some months ago: "In a way it would be better if the Hamas takes over. Then there would be no ambiguity. Today, Arafat conducts a terrorist war against us and still enjoys international legitimacy as a peace partner. If the Hamas takes over, our goal will be clear--to defeat them. No one will argue that we have to negotiate with these people."
Yet while the prospect of a Hamas-led regime may have the positive feature of clarity, it is also highly unlikely. Although Palestinian support for Hamas has risen over the past 15 months, this public backing is due mainly to increased hatred for Israel rather than a swelling of support for Hamas's political or ideological agenda. A source from Israeli military intelligence explains the seeming contradiction: "Hamas is now supported by 30% of Palestinians in contrast to 9% of Palestinians who declared support for Hamas before the outbreak of violence in September 2000. However, it is very unlikely that in the event of Arafat's removal, this support will be translated into political backing of a Hamas regime. Palestinians are far from interested in establishing an Islamic state."
If not Hamas, then who can replace the chairman? Mr. Arafat, who has personally symbolized Palestinian nationalist aspirations for over a generation, has no single replacement. When Mr. Arafat goes, he--like Stalin--will be replaced by a junta. Israeli experts concur that the most likely successor regime will be a quadripartite coalition comprised of two political leaders and two military commanders who together possess the necessary resources to assume the helm.
The two political leaders, Mahmud Abbas, Mr. Arafat's No. 2 in the PLO, and Ahmed Queria, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, have risen to international prominence in their roles as lead negotiators with Israel over the past eight years. Mr. Abbas (a.k.a Abu Mazzan) is viewed as a statesman by Palestinians and Westerners alike. Last summer Mr. Abbas ran into trouble with Mr. Arafat when the Palestinian media reported that during meetings in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice he discussed prospects for a successor regime to Mr. Arafat. After a few months in Mr. Arafat's doghouse, senior Palestinians prevailed upon their chief to bring his deputy back into the leadership fold. While acceptable politically to the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas lacks Mr. Arafat's charisma, and commands no military forces of his own.
Mr. Queria, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ala, rose to international prominence as the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel--a position he has held off and on since 1993. In this post, he cultivated good relations with the State Department and the European Union and built up the international bona fides to consolidate his position next to Mr. Abbas. More important for his future in a post-Arafat coalition is Mr. Queria's economic power. He has controlled and managed the PLO's finances for the past 20 years and has the economic muscle to ensure his place at the table.
The military commanders who will stand beside Messrs. Abbas and Queria are Jibril Rajoub and Mohamed Dahlan--the heads of the Palestinian preventive security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Mr. Arafat has 13 separate security forces, the preventive security forces in both areas are the undisputed masters of their realms. Whereas all the other militias are comprised of officers and troops who came into the region with Mr. Arafat in 1994, the preventive security forces consist chiefly of locals. This distinction is crucial, for the main bone of contention between the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and Mr. Arafat's PA has been the feeling among the majority of Palestinians that they replaced one foreign occupier--Israel--with another foreign occupier--Mr. Arafat's forces and cadres from abroad. Mr. Rajoub and Mr. Dahlan's men--the best trained and most disciplined forces in the PA--are the only ones considered to be "of the people."
Both Mr. Rajoub and Mr. Dahlan are charismatic local commanders who joined Mr. Arafat in Tunis after Israel deported them in 1988 for their leadership roles in the Palestinian uprising. Both have cultivated relations with the U.S., the EU and the Israeli military, and neither has assumed a direct role in the attacks against Israel over the past 15 months. Mr. Rajoub has prohibited his men from participating in terrorism and Mr. Dahlan has charged his deputy, Rashid Abu-Shabah, with taking command of the terrorist attacks his forces carry out in order to maintain a semblance of plausible deniability before the Israeli and U.S. governments.
These four men--and not Hamas--are the likely face of the Palestinian leadership in a post-Arafat era. Will they have more of an interest in ending the violence than Mr. Arafat?
The sense among the experts is that the four will be motivated to end the violence against Israel. One well-placed Israeli military source explains: "These four are going to need quiet from Israel and the United States to consolidate their power. To achieve this quiet they will have to put an end to the fighting."
Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, believes that even if the four are unable to end the violence, the situation under their leadership will be no worse than the current one under Mr. Arafat. In his view, "Even if Arafat is assassinated, the violence will not worsen. Today the Palestinians are hitting Israel with everything they have. Arafat's departure will not impact their capabilities so even if their motivation to attack Israel rises, their ability to do so will remain constant."
Although Mr. Arafat's removal will not be a panacea to the region's woes, and while the unabated Palestinian terrorist attacks of the past 15 months make it difficult to look to the future with optimism, a future without Mr. Arafat will scarcely be worse that the present with him. And, with the proper management, it could be far better.
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Something to think about.