Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Arafat's death makes talks possible

NEW START?With the Palestinian leader on his death bed, Israel may seek talks with new Palestinian leadership, or use Arafat's death as an excuse for unilateral action

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

New York Rabbi Yisrael David Weiss brings flowers to the the Percy Military Teaching Hospital where ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was under treatment in Clamart, outside Paris, Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Ariel Sharon has ordered his ministers not to speak publicly about the imminent demise of the man he has more than once regretted not killing.

But Israel's prime minister has already told Cabinet colleagues that the era of Yasser Arafat is at an end. And with it has gone Sharon's best asset in his strategy to impose on the Palestinians what they would never agree to through negotiation.

Arafat's prevarications over the tactics that allowed Israel to paint the Palestinian cause as driven by terror -- the suicide bombings and indiscriminate attacks on civilians -- provided Sharon with the pretext for his unilateral plan to give up the Gaza Strip while entrenching control over large parts of the West Bank.

Sharon called the Palestinian leader an obstacle to peace who had to be removed, and pondered whether to exile or even kill him.

Now the obstacle lies in a coma in a French military hospital and almost no one in the Israeli government believes he will be back on top.

"Arafat was the most important excuse for the Israeli refusal to negotiate," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute. "Israeli unilateralism is now under a political sword."

At the core of Sharon's plan to unilaterally pull Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank is his claim that there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.

Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said the Palestinian leader's demise did not change that.

"It is not certain who will be the [new Palestinian] leader and how long it will take to build and establish the leadership," he said.

"It could take a long time, so I see no implication for the disengagement plan. If conditions change and a leadership is ripe for cooperation, then perhaps it will be necessary to reconsider matters."

But others in the security establishment and foreign ministry believe that Arafat's passing will force the Israel government to negotiate at least the practicalities of the Gaza withdrawal.

"On the day after, we will be in a completely different situation," said Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, after Arafat fell seriously ill last week. "The unilateral measure stemmed from the fact that there was no one to talk to, but without the shadow of Arafat, who prevented the possibility of dialogue, I believe that the Palestinian leadership will have the opportunity to carry out its commitments in the war on terrorism."

After Arafat was flown to the Paris military hospital, a former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, asserted control over the main Palestinian political organs, Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is a favorite of the Americans.

During his brief tenure as prime minister last year he made efforts to curb Palestinian attacks on Israelis by drawing militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades into a cease-fire. He also pressed for political reform and greater accountability within the Palestinian Authority.

But Abbas was blocked by Arafat -- who did not wish to surrender control over the bulk of the Palestinian security forces -- and undermined by Sharon.

The Israeli prime minister effectively killed off the cease-fire by arguing that Israel was not a party to it and so was under no obligation to stop killing Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, prompting a resumption of the suicide bombings. Sharon was widely criticized afterwards for not doing enough to help the then Palestinian prime minister, besides releasing a few hundred prisoners.

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