Arafat's Passing Poses Major Test for Bush
death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will test whether U.S.
President George W. Bush intends to maintain his staunch support
for Israel's right-wing government at the risk of further alienating
the U.S.' European allies and Muslim public opinion.
will also provide an early insight into whether the hardline coalition
that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001
aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives who support Israel's governing
Likud Party, and the Christian Right, which supports Israel for
mainly theological reasons will retain or even expand its
influence in the president's second term.
as Arafat neared death at a Paris military hospital Wednesday, Bush
told reporters he saw an "opening for peace" in the Palestinian
leader's passing, most analysts here believe the balance of forces
within the administration still favors the hardliners, and that
Washington will not do anything to upset Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon's plans to unilaterally withdraw settlers from the
Gaza Strip while consolidating Israel's hold on the West Bank.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in advance of his two-day
summit with Bush here at the end of this week, had declared that
restoring the Israeli-Palestinian peace "is the single most
pressing political change in our world today," is expected
to get a polite hearing, but his appeals for Washington to adopt
a more evenhanded position are almost certain to be turned aside.
that the administration and a huge majority in Congress have explicitly
endorsed the Sharon plan, the prospects for a major change in U.S.
policy of the kind Blair will be urging are pretty bleak,"
said Stephen Zunes, a Middle East expert at the University of San
addition, the anticipated departure from the administration of Secretary
of State Colin Powell will only strengthen the position of administration
hardliners, particularly pro-Likud neocons in the National Security
Council (NSC), Near East Director Elliott Abrams, in Vice President
Dick Cheney's office and in the civilian leadership of the Pentagon.
who was former President Bill Clinton's most frequent foreign visitor
after he and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands
at the signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn in September
1993, was vilified as a supporter of terrorism by Bush and his most
one point, Cheney confided to Israel's defense minister that he
thought the Palestinian leader, who was elected president of the
Palestinian Authority (PA) by nearly 90 percent of Palestinians
in one of the freest elections ever held in the Arab world, should
Sharon moved to permanently confine Arafat to a small compound in
Ramallah three years ago, the administration insisted only that
the Israeli forces not arrest or harm him physically.
afterward, in June 2002, Washington announced it would no longer
deal with Arafat at all, but only with "moderate" leaders
who could oversee new elections, exert control of all Palestinian
security forces, and halt all terrorist attacks against Israelis,
both in Israel and in the occupied territories.
Arafat's U.S.-approved prime minister Mahmoud Abbas took steps to
comply with those conditions, however, the Bush administration failed
to press Sharon to reciprocate by, for example, releasing hundreds
of Palestinian prisoners, gradually withdrawing the Israeli Defense
Force from occupied towns, or dismantling illegal Israeli outposts
on the West Bank.
of these steps were required by a new "Road Map" put forward
by the European Union (EU), the United Nations, Russia, and the
United States in early 2003 to restore a credible peace process.
his promises to do these things, Sharon failed to deliver,"
said Henry Siegman, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign
Relations who played a key role under Clinton in the Oslo peace
process. "And despite Bush's promise to press Sharon to keep
these promises, he also failed to deliver. Sharon gave Abu Mazen
a result, Abbas, who now succeeds Arafat as chairman of the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO), resigned as prime minister in September
2003, effectively dashing hopes for a revived peace process but
permitting Sharon to insist that, with Arafat still in control,
he had no "Palestinian partner" with whom he could negotiate.
as one of the prime movers of the Road Map, clearly intends to press
Bush on using his influence with Sharon to put the plan which
incorporates Bush's 2002 demands on the Palestinians but also requires
Israel to freeze settlement activity, dismantle illegal outposts,
and take other reciprocal steps back on track, particularly
now that Arafat has passed from the scene and "moderate"
leaders, especially Abbas and his successor as prime minister, Ahmed
Qureia, appear to make up the core of a collective leadership that
intends to hold elections early next year.
should work with Israel to allow Palestinian moderates to show results
to their people that will enhance their stature, mostly through
repackaging steps that Israel is already willing to make,"
such as following through on its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza,
said Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now (APN), a
predominantly Jewish group that supported the Oslo process.
problem, however, is that in an exchange of letters with Sharon
over the latter's Gaza plan last April, Bush not only endorsed the
Israeli leader's unilateral course, but also took positions on settlements,
territorial compromises, and the right of Palestinian refugees to
return to their homes that, according to both Oslo and the Road
Map, must be left to direct negotiations between Israel and the
critical question will be whether Sharon will continue to act unilaterally,
insisting that he does not yet have a Palestinian partner for peace
so that he can continue to deepen Israel's hold on the West Bank,
or enter into serious negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership,"
according to Siegman.
answer to this question will depend on how seriously the United
States will become engaged and insist that the new Palestinian leadership
be helped by Israel and be given the credibility it needs to fight
terror and to pursue a nonviolent approach to Palestinian goals,"
will happen unless the Israelis and the United States make it happen,"
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution,
said Thursday. He noted that Sharon and his supporters in the Bush
administration will argue that the ability of Palestinian moderates
to enforce their will remains uncertain and that any major new diplomatic
effort by Washington is premature, at best.
Arafat's disappearance makes it more difficult for the administration
to argue it should not be more deeply involved, since it has now
been deprived of its main excuse Arafat's presence
for not becoming engaged.
long as Arafat was in power, the question was whether there was
a Palestinian partner for peace," according to Siegman. "If
he is replaced by a Palestinian leadership that opposes violence,
the question will become: is there an Israeli partner for peace,
and what is the United States doing to make sure there is?"
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service