RAMALLAH - Just one moment in that jostling crowd under undisciplined Palestinian
security forces at the funeral of Yasser Arafat was enough to pick up on huge
problems for resumption of a peace process in the Middle East.
The faithful of Arafat's Fatah movement were chanting slogans that they will
stick to the supposedly moderate path of their departed leader. At the same
time armed militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, now renamed the Yasser
Arafat Martyrs Brigades, marched across the Muqata compound in Ramallah where
their leader was being buried, vowing to continue attacks on Israel.
Six or seven security organizations were present in different uniforms. The
ill-equipped and poorly trained forces lost control over the crowd, raising
questions about their capacity to re-impose control over Palestinian territories.
The new diplomatic realities are not clear, either. U.S. President George W.
Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair seem eager to exploit the departure
of the veteran Palestinian leader. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke
of the opportunity for a historic "turning point."
Surely this is too much credit for a man who was termed irrelevant by both
Bush and Sharon over the last couple of years. A leader who had the run of only
a few office blocks in his Ramallah headquarters, and that too only by the grace
of the Israelis who could have taken him out at any moment.
Any momentous change, which the passing of this icon of the Palestinian struggle
naturally is, could bring an opportunity for progress in the Middle East. But
it should be clear to any observer in the Palestinian territories and Israel
that the conditions on the ground have not changed substantially.
Israel still occupies most of the West Bank, keeping cities surrounded and
making travel difficult. That became clear again from the tales of the relatively
few Palestinians who made it to the funeral from outside the Ramallah area.
Israeli forces still carry out arrests and assassinations in Palestinian cities.
Sharon and his right-wing coalition have not yet shown any sign of easing conditions
in a significant way. Nor have they shown a willingness to stop settlement activity,
engage in serious negotiations, or take any of the other steps needed to renew
a peace process.
Under pressure from the Americans, it does seem that Israel will allow Palestinian
elections to go ahead by their announced date of Jan. 9. Sharon has even said
that "some" Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which is annexed by Israel,
Elections have their own dynamic, and it would be premature to bank on the
interim Palestinian leadership, which is seen as moderate, coming out top. Nobody
knows the real strength of the ruling Fatah movement.
The interim leaders are regarded by many as part of a corrupt clique that came
up around Arafat. They have provoked much resentment among the Palestinian population
over the last decade or so. This "old guard" is still strong but is
being challenged increasingly by a new generation of leaders who are not always
The moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who is Arafat's heir as head of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO), is one of the few from the old guard who is well
respected. But the shooting at an event he attended Sunday where two security
guards were killed was an early sign of militant resistance to moderate leadership.
In his first term as prime minister last year he failed to bring militant groups
under control. He was seen as too moderate by many in his own Fatah faction.
Arafat was, of course, still playing a large role at the time, many say as spoiler.
A senior Fatah official in the West Bank who is close to the Yasser Arafat
Martyrs Brigades says the new leadership must stick to the demands that were
on the table while Arafat was alive. These include full Israeli withdrawal from
areas the Israeli army occupied during this Intifada, a freeze on settlement
activity, release of Palestinian Authority (PA) money held by Israel, and release
There seems little prospect that all the demands will be met. It will be clear
soon enough after elections are held whether a new leadership will get the room
to maneuver that it will need if negotiations are to resume. Some Fatah leaders
say elections should not to go ahead if these demands are not met first.
All these problems and more should mean that international leaders hoping for
a quick breakthrough in the peace process need to exercise more restraint.
Leaders of the pro-West Arab states and the Western Europeans with their own
large Muslim communities seem particularly keen to solve the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. They see it as the cause of much of the instability in the Middle
East and of anti-Western feelings.
But any mutually agreed solution is bound to fall well short of what many in
the Arab and Muslim world will regard as just, even if the Palestinians accept
The danger of investing so much importance in solving a conflict of middling
intensity is that it may put so much pressure on either of the parties that
they will just snap under it and revert to what they know best, a new round
of bloodletting. This is very much what happened after the failed Camp David
talks in 2000.
Such is the danger of hyping the opportunities presented by the passing away
of Arafat. Unless renewed hope and investment of diplomatic capital miraculously
create a new dynamic that helps both parties to achieve peace.