The death of Yasser Arafat presents the Palestinian people with yet another opportunity to choose between war and peace. Anything can happen as Arafat passes into history and Palestinians sort through the political shambles he bequeathed them.
Palestinians and Israelis have been at war since Arafat opened the second Intifada rather than accept the generous peace plan offered by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Even if Palestinians had a strong, popular new leader, neither side could easily set aside its grievances. And the prospects of Palestinians finding such a leader are remote.
The PLO elected Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as its new chief. According to Henry Siegman, the Council on Foreign Relations' top expert on Israeli/Palestinian affairs, there is little question but that Abbas also will become president of the Palestinian Authority, and emerge as Arafat's successor. Working with former Israeli Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin in the 1990s, Abbas worked out a two-state framework for peace that was largely reflected in the plan put forward by Barak at Camp David, which Arafat scuttled.
Abbas, who briefly held the post of Palestinian prime minister last year, was undercut by both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Abbas opposed the second Intifada, but doesn't have the kind of support Arafat did. The conventional wisdom is that the United States and Israel are largely powerless to influence the situation. Still, Siegman said that the elevation of Abbas presents an opportunity for resuming Middle East peace talks if Israel and the United States drop their opposition to negotiations aimed at a permanent Palestinian-Israeli peace.
"If Abu Mazen replaces Arafat, 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," Siegman said. "The 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."
Those last two items are essential. Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian leader who will not actively pursue Islamic terrorists who kill Israeli civilians. As Arafat's criminal obstinacy made clear over the years, you cannot make peace with someone who wants no part of it. The first important change must come from the Palestinians, who will have to decide if they want something better than they've had over the 56 years since Israel's birth, and then figure out what they are willing to do to achieve it.
As remote as the prospects are for rapid improvement, the fact is that there will be no better time than now to sow the seeds for change. With Abba Eben's caustic observation of Palestinian mulishness in mind, it is important no interested party misses an opportunity that is, literally, once in a lifetime.