Assessments of the impact of Yasser Arafat’s death are as divided as earlier explanations of the Palestinian leader’s motivations, intentions, and actions. What seems certain is this unhelpful conclusion: Things will change, for better or worse. More accurately, perhaps, things will change for better and worse. Whatever comes some will see as positive, others as negative.
No doubt even without Arafat’s leadership the Palestinian movement would have grown in the 1960s and 70s, an era when colonized peoples around the world increasingly, and increasingly successfully, rejected Western dominance. Palestinians would not for much longer have accepted occupation and exile. As important as Arafat’s organizing role in the early years and his officially recognized international status later, his primary role was as symbolic center of an inevitable Palestinian movement for justice and national liberation.
That symbolism won’t transfer to whoever wins the January election for president of the Palestinian Authority.
The election campaign is already bringing to the fore intense debate over exactly what it is the divided Palestinian people really want. Arafat himself died without having to clarify what he was willing to settle for. Would he really, as he claimed, accept a Palestinian state living at peace next to Israel if the deal were better than the inadequate ones he rejected, or did he really mean to reject any solution leaving a Jewish state in existence? Did he really condemn Palestinian terrorist attacks, as he insisted publicly, or did he continue to support the tactic he had done so much to develop? Refusing to pin himself down increased his appeal to Palestinians who could claim his support for whatever they themselves preferred.
Opposing factions already claim Arafat’s succession. His long-time associate Mahmoud Abbas, briefly Prime Minister, remains publicly committed to the two-state solution Arafat officially supported. Lacking Arafat’s stature, however, his willingness to compromise could be fatal. Sunday’s shooting at Arafat’s mourning tent in Gaza while Abbas was inside demonstrated the hostility toward compromise by more militant Palestinians claiming to be Arafat’s true inheritors.
Initial polls suggest a majority of Palestinian voters are willing to accept Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state in return for stopping the killing and the Occupation that spawns it. Still, they divide among themselves over whether to accept any deal at all or whether to push for a fairer one that doesn’t doom Palestine to a truncated, subservient future. This division, of course, parallels the debate within Israel, where Ariel Sharon’s proposed Gaza pullout and the official commitment to a future Palestinian state angers those who reject any removal of Jews from historic Greater Israel.
Other Palestinians adamantly oppose any solution leaving in existence an officially Jewish state. This side, too, claims Arafat’s mantle. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, re-named the Al Yasser Brigades, has paraded a new, longer-range missile called the Yasser. But internal divisions exist here as well. Most noticeable is the division over using terrorism, which some criticize as morally repugnant and others as counterproductive and unlikely to succeed, while others maintain any resistance to occupation is legitimate. This debate too has its Israeli parallel, where small but growing numbers of soldiers refuse to use the deadly force their peers regularly employ to impose harsh conditions on Palestinian civilians.
The most fundamental Palestinian split, often glossed over, is over what should replace the status quo. Hamas clearly wants to create an Islamic state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, a goal rejected by the more numerous advocates of a secular state with Jews and Arabs living together under equal conditions. Although some who call for a “secular democratic state” may do so as a ruse, as many in Israel suspect, it seems to me the call is more often genuine than not, and more likely to increase than fade away.
Calls for secular democracy raise a challenge for Israelis to attempt to resolve, finally, their own state’s uneasy claim to be both democratic and Jewish. The Israeli public, like the Palestinian, ranges from those who want a religiously-based state to those who prefer a democratic one. Arafat’s death may force on the Israeli public as much soul-searching as it does among Palestinians.
Palestinian voters this January can choose Abbas or some other candidate committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel or they can choose the popular Marwan Barghouthi, now in Israeli prison after conviction on terrorism charges and less open to compromising away fundamental rights. Whoever they choose will claim, with some justification, to be following Yasser Arafat’s path.