© 2001 The Washington Post Company

It Will Only Get Tougher

By Muhammad Muslih

Sunday, January 7, 2001; Page B01


Last week, as the White House labored to gain Palestinian acceptance of a peace plan conditionally approved by the Israelis in December, there was a sense of time running out. President Clinton will be out of office in a matter of weeks, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak faces an uphill battle in his struggle to win reelection next month. The Palestinian side, led as always by Yasser Arafat, seems the most stable. But it could be the most uncertain.

The ability of the Palestinians to pay the price of peace with Israel and make peace stick largely hinges on the ailing Arafat, 71, who has embodied the Palestinian cause since 1965. Arafat has no obvious successors. When he dies, or leaves power for whatever reason, his absence would throw the already tenuous negotiations into a dangerous tailspin. It would also destabilize the turbulent situation in the West Bank and Gaza, otherwise known as Palestine.

In the short run, Arafat's successor, whoever he is -- and it will most surely be a "he" -- would have neither the power base nor the leadership qualities that are necessary to clinch a deal with Israel and to restore order and stability in Palestine. Despite Arafat's many imperfections (tolerance for corruption, patronage, autocratic rule) he is a known entity and a predictable leader. His presence is reassuring for the overwhelming majority of Palestinians; they think that without him Palestinian politics will be all sail and no anchor.

Arafat knows how to read the bottom line, the minimum demands that Palestinians can accept. No one else in the Palestinian leadership has that ability. I say that based on my numerous private conversations over the years with Palestinian leaders -- and with Arafat as far back as his Beirut days in the 1970s. Arafat is the glue that holds competing Palestinian groups and trends together. He has proven that he can make difficult decisions with respect to war and peace with Israel. All of this explains his political longevity.

As early as 1973, Arafat had the shrewdness to realize that, vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, a fundamentally pragmatic mood was starting to take root in Arab capitals. He was able to build on this mood and to convince the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to endorse the idea of a "two-state solution" in 1974. This culminated in the PLO's 1988 acceptance, in principle, of a Palestinian state living in peace in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel. It also culminated in the 1993 Oslo accords that provided for mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and for limited Palestinian self-rule in parts of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in June 1967. Arafat's long history of military and political struggle gave him the credentials and the mandate that enabled him to make painful concessions that no Palestinian leader before him had ever done or dared to do.

Arafat's successor will face extraordinarily difficult challenges as he tries to fill the shoes of a leader with international stature who has built coalitions and intimate relations with governments as diverse as Egypt, the United States, China and Russia.

Arafat was able to focus almost exclusively on the peace process. The next leader will have to decide whether to focus primarily on consolidating his power at home at the expense of the peace process, or vice versa. Israel and the United States may push him to move forward with the peace process and security arrangements with Israel. But there may be pressures domestically and from external forces opposed to the peace process for him to prove his nationalist credentials in his dealings with Israel and the United States.

The new leader may well have to deal with problems that Arafat -- because of who he is -- did not feel under any pressure to address. For example, Arafat's successor will find himself forced to define the relationship between the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, inside the West Bank and Gaza, and the institutions of the PLO throughout the lands of the Palestinian diaspora. Unlike Arafat, he may not be in a position to ignore popular calls for political reform, democratization, accountability and a fight against corruption. He also may be forced to accommodate the rejectionist Islamic movement Hamas, in contrast to Arafat, who clipped the wings of the organization and kept it under the watchful eye of his security services.

Without question, this new Palestinian leader will bring a new approach to his everyday dealings. Arafat has not yet been touched by the information revolution. His "computer" is his memory or a small notebook in his pocket. When he wants to support his point of view or jot down an important piece of information, he pulls out the notebook and searches for a pen, which is quickly handed to him by an aide. This is a typical Ottoman way of managing the daily political affairs of a presidential office. His successor will, in all probability, have a different style when dealing with people.

Arafat has charisma. When he talks, Palestinians listen attentively. He doesn't have to be persuasive; what he says is presidential. Arafat has a long legacy of armed struggle, political manipulation, revolutionary polemics, quiet diplomacy and provocative statements. He is both a warrior and a peacemaker. He is the autocrat and the benign caretaker who hesitates to ride the tide of democratization, yet extends help to a widowed woman or an orphaned child or a terminally ill person. It will take his successor years of public service to acquire the credentials that will give him the legitimacy and public endorsement necessary for that kind of effective leadership.

When I think about Palestine after Arafat, I am reminded of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. Before Nasser's death in September 1970, the overwhelming majority of Arabs believed that he was irreplaceable and that Egypt would be a rudderless ship without him. Yet, the succession in Egypt was relatively smooth. Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, was able to take control of the Egyptian state and to conclude a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But Egypt, unlike Palestine, was an old state with established institutions that made the succession question relatively easy to handle. In Palestine, succession will be far more difficult.

Does this mean that the transfer of power after Arafat's death will lead to chaos, instability and violent power struggles among the Palestinian security agencies? Does it also mean that power struggles will fragment Fatah, the broad national front that is the backbone of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, indeed of the Palestinian national movement?

The answer, in both cases, is: not necessarily. It is highly probable that the transfer of power in Palestine will be constitutional, orderly and peaceful.

I say this for three reasons. The first concerns the Palestinian experience itself. Palestinians of the diaspora, as well as those in Gaza and the West Bank, have experience holding elections, building trade unions, establishing women's organizations, creating parties and being involved in other political activities. Second, Palestinians have an abiding desire for a working democracy and a keen interest in maintaining a united front in the face of Israeli occupation. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza publicly acknowledge their admiration for the workings of Israeli democracy even though they resent being on the receiving end of Israel's occupation policies. Third, the smooth process of succession in Jordan, Morocco and Syria over the past several years invalidates the argument of those who assert that Arab leaders are selected with the barrel of a gun.

Where will Arafat's successor come from? In all likelihood, he will have to emerge from Fatah. Its focus on independence and its adoption of armed struggle for advancing national goals has helped shape Palestinian national identity. The institutions it has built among Palestinian students, women and teachers, together with its bureaucratic elite, formed the nucleus of a quasi-government. By driving mass politics, by establishing a national political agenda, by gaining recognition and legitimacy, by asserting its leadership, by fighting for independence, by opting for a diplomatic settlement with Israel, Fatah demarcated the Palestinians as an autonomous actor in regional and international politics.

After decades of struggle and accumulated diplomatic experience, who better understands the meaning and the ways of political survival and consensus building than a Fatah veteran? Arafat's successor will need a political program that incorporates the basic national Palestinian demands and that is acceptable to the vast majority of Palestinians. Fatah has such a program.

Yet other factors will influence the choice of the next leader. The desires of Israel, the United States and Egypt most likely will play a role. This does not mean that this new leader will latch onto the coattails of foreign powers. It means that the character, style and organization of his domestic and foreign policies should show signs of deference to Israeli and American security needs as well as respect and esteem for Egypt, the Arab big brother that has been an indispensable source of support for the Palestine cause.

Arafat's successor, whoever he is, will have great cause to look over his shoulder. Arafat is the repository of insights into the psychology and phobias of his people as well as of his external allies and foes. Palestinians accepted from Arafat things that they may not accept from his successor.

The Old Man, as he is called, can get away with things that his successor would not be able to do without risking his legitimacy and perhaps his political survival. Arafat has tolerated corruption. He has violated human rights. He has played the game of balancing one party against the other. At times, he has silenced the Islamic opposition. He has exercised a highly personalized and centralized style of leadership. He has micro-managed Palestinian politics. He has made major, unreciprocated concessions to Israel. He has refrained from defining the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, and between Fatah insiders and outsiders. He has been averse to building real institutions based on rational rules and procedures. Yet, all of this had very little bearing on his legitimacy. Palestinians often say bidun Arafat, ma bitimshi, bi-Arafat bitimshi, lakin mufarkasheh: Without Arafat, nothing works, yet with him things work, but awkwardly.

Arafat's successor will not be able to match his style of political action. It is a style Palestinians came to accept, not because it always produces results (it does not) but because it is the style of the Old Man, who embodies the struggle that is dear to 6 million Palestinians and tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims throughout the world.

Paradoxically, some Palestinians subconsciously expect the same political style from his successor. On the other hand, members of the Palestinian literate class want a new approach to politics, an approach that is anchored in institutions and laws and procedures. This is one of the main challenges for the next Palestinian leader: steering a course that will address the Palestinian longing for independence and good governance, yet fulfill Israel's insistence on security. Leaders can make a difference between war and peace. Arafat, winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, has the will and the ability to deliver peace. The same cannot be said with certainty of his successor. Now is the time to clinch a deal. Muhammad Muslih, a professor of political science at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y., also teaches Middle East politics at Columbia University. His most recent book is "The Golan: Road to Occupation" (Institute for Palestine Studies).