Life after Yasser Arafat uncertain

The leader’s passing could bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

For all the questions raised by last week’s death of Yasser Arafat, one thing is certain: The debate over his legacy is likely to be as polarizing as the conflict that consumed his life. To some, Arafat gave public expression to the Palestinian dream of statehood, turning a weakened diaspora into a potent political force. To others, he represented all that has gone wrong with the Palestinian movement, rejecting compromise and making terrorism a strategy.

That debate is worth having, but it should not distract Israelis and Palestinians from the opportunities before them. The passing of Arafat has the potential to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table they left four years ago.

President George W. Bush has already signaled his willingness to step up U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush has long maintained that only a democratically elected, moderate Palestinian leadership could be trusted to renounce terrorism and negotiate faithfully with Israel. Many observers believe the stage is now set for that kind of leadership to finally emerge.

That might be true, but much more will need to happen if Israelis and Palestinians are to end the 4-year-old cycle of violence. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should remember that even a democratic Palestinian leadership will have to contend with extremists who reject outright a two-state solution. They should know that no Palestinian leader can hope to neutralize groups such as Hamas while Israeli settlements expand further into the West Bank and Israeli troops maintain their chokehold on the Palestinian people.

On this count, Sharon seems to not have changed much. The Israelis continue to insist a visible crackdown on terrorism come before any Palestinian demands are met. While Israeli concerns over terrorism are understandable, that hard-headed approach is a recipe for more violence and bloodshed.

The prospects for peace in the Middle East depend on the kind of leader who becomes the next public face of the Palestinian people. But those prospects also depend on whether Sharon is willing to give up Israeli settlements in the West Bank and a heavy military presence throughout Palestinian territories.