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The Palestinian Authority is still the least of all evils

by Yossi Alpher

A discussion of the ongoing significance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for Israel has to address two key problems. The first is the difficulty in predicting what, if any, Palestinian leadership structure might conceivably replace it. The second is distinguishing, under present circumstances, between the fate of PA Rais Yasir Arafat, and the fate of the PA? Does Arafat's disappearance from the scene necessarily mean the collapse of the PA?

There is a school of thought in the Israeli security establishment that argues that, were Arafat to disappear today, he would be replaced by a coalition of moderate Fatah pragmatists. Thus the PA would continue to exist, but it would be easier for Israel to deal with. Needless to say, this assessment creates a huge temptation for the Sharon government and for anyone else in Israel who is frustrated with Arafat's lack of credibility, his reliance on violence and his extreme positions (even by the standards of Israeli doves) regarding the Right of Return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

A more sober and measured assessment must conclude that there are so many potential variables involved in a Palestinian regime change--Palestinian political and military infighting, manipulations by Israel, Egypt and Jordan, possible physical conquest and reoccupation by Israel, communications difficulties caused by the geographic non-contiguity of the various segments of the PA--that the outcome is impossible to predict. One can easily speculate that the removal or disappearance of Arafat and/or the PA will usher in an era of chaos and anarchy, and possibly an Islamist regime led by Hamas. These outcomes are at least as likely as a peaceful 'succession' by moderates. An Islamist regime in Palestine would be the first in the entire region. It would be sitting on Israel's borders. How ironic that this might happen at the very time when the US is fighting the extremist violence embedded in another radical Islam, and is begging Israelis and Palestinians to get their conflict 'off the radar screen' in order to avoid hindering American coalition-building efforts.

Some on the Israeli political right claim to welcome the advent of an extremist Palestinian leadership, insofar as it puts an end to a territorial peace process they loath, and draws clear lines between "civilized" Israel and its Palestinian neighbor. In fact, the emergence of a Palestinian Islamist regime openly dedicated to Israel's destruction would be a recipe for yet more violence, destruction and misery for both Israelis and Palestinians. It would make Arafat and Fatah look positively benign by comparison. Israel's settlement and occupation policies would be universally blamed for such a development.

The chain of events triggered by the disappearance of Arafat and/or the PA could also conceivably precipitate full-fledged Israeli reoccupation of all of Areas A, B and the Gaza Strip. But since even the Sharon government recognizes that it has no 'solution' for dealing with 3.2 million Palestinians under total Israeli rule, it would presumably do everything possible to find an alternative.

The PA could conceivably collapse on its own-due to the corruption and weakness of leadership that a number of Palestinian scholars and critics point to. But it is within Israel's power to help it survive or help it fall. There are growing indications that Sharon would like to help it fall. Each new incursion into Area A appears designed to accustom Washington, Cairo and Amman, as well as the Israeli public, to the ultimate coup de grace. Sharon has already hinted publicly that he prefers to negotiate with Palestinian regional security chiefs rather than with Arafat, who no longer inspires trust among most Israelis. And Sharon has a record of disastrous manipulations within the power structure of Israel's Arab neighbors: his "Jordan is Palestine" formula to replace the Hashemite regime; the abortive Village Leagues twenty years ago, and the "crowning" of the Jumayil brothers in Lebanon in 1982-83. Most Israelis learned from the Lebanon experience that it is counterproductive to Israeli interests, in terms of security and regional relations, to meddle in the leadership arrangements of our neighbors.

There is undoubtedly a measure of truth to the contention, heard in both Israel and Palestine, that the Fatah "Old Guard" represented by Arafat is growing increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. For the moment, the best option for stabilization and a return to the peace process is still for Yasir Arafat to abandon violence and restore his authority. But if his rule is to be replaced or radically altered, then it would be better for both Palestinians and Israelis if this were accomplished from within, at the initiative of Palestinians only. And better for Palestinians to maintain the ongoing functioning of existing PA institutions, however problematic they are and however temporary they are designed to be, until ultimately they can negotiate the evolution of a Palestinian state through agreement. At that point, of course, the Palestinian Authority would and should in any case cease to exist.- Published 19/11/01 (c) Bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is a writer and consultant on Israeli- Arab/Jewish issues and director of the Political Security Domain.


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