The Magazine

A Democratic Palestine

From the November 22, 2004 issue: The post-Arafat agenda.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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WITH FIDEL CASTRO now sporting double-breasted suits, the uniform-clad Yasser Arafat could rightly claim to be "the world's last revolutionary." In this regard, as in so many others, Arafat has no heir. None of the contenders to "succeed" him--if the verb is appropriate to the situation--wears a military uniform. At Arafat's funeral, the pallbearers will be in either jackets and ties, checkered keffiyehs, or traditional religious garb--but little khaki.

If history is any guide, worst-case fears about a descent to anarchy in the immediate aftermath of Arafat's death are unwarranted. While "Palestine" is not a state in the legal sense, it does have some of the attributes of the modern Arab state, from which succession lessons can be drawn.

Traditionally, Arab states have had coups and assassinations but rarely revolutions or civil wars. When faced with the prospect of radical change that could bring down an entire ruling system, elites have more often than not found a way to produce suitable (or at least sustainable) successors rather than risk exposing themselves to wholesale political change. Such has been the case in republics, like Egypt, as well as in monarchies, like Saudi Arabia. The counter-case does not exist--there is no example of an Arab state disintegrating when the leader, even the paramount leader, leaves the scene.

Like most other Arab states, Palestine--the political hybrid of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and its sundry constituent groups--has been highly centralized in the person of the leader. Like other states, it boasts competing and overlapping intelligence and security agencies that are themselves more potent than the regular uniformed forces. While there are thousands of guns floating around the West Bank and Gaza, the vast majority are in the hands of governmental or para-statal organs; the armed units of "opposition" groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are very small, numbering in the hundreds.

In the current Palestinian case, Arafat's death likely means a "rush to the ramparts" by Palestinian political and security figures, each in his (and they will all be men) own zone of influence in the West Bank and Gaza, and probably working in concert with each other. The objective would be to defend their collective authority while protecting their individual slices of power and influence. A "national leadership" of political and security personalities will probably emerge, with the former playing a more public role at the beginning of the process, progressively ceding real power to the latter. The bywords would be unity, accountability, transparency, participation, and democracy--little of which would in fact exist.

As for relations with Israel, his collective heirs will leaven Arafat's legacy with pragmatism. While offering no political concessions that Arafat was unwilling to countenance, they are also likely to go further than Arafat toward meeting Israel's immediate security concerns, lest Arafat's death convince enough Israelis that the cost of decisive military action against the PA is worth the perceived benefits. In the Arafat era, that was not the case, but in the age of his successors, a new approach may take hold.

According to this analysis, the most likely scenario in the immediate aftermath of Arafat's passing is Palestinian political stasis--neither a collective bloodletting nor a collective sigh of relief. In the near term, this will not lead to much in the way of movement forward (toward either better governance or conciliation in diplomacy with Israel) or backward (toward either full-scale kleptocracy or open warfare against Israel). Getting and keeping power will be the main thrust of post-Arafat Palestinian politics, and there is little that outside powers, including the United States, can do to alter the local dynamic and its outcome.

But with the passage of time, all is likely to change. Optimists believe that the death of Arafat will eventually free Palestinian politics from the stranglehold that the chairman's unique persona has helped keep on it for a generation. According to this theory, Arafat's passing will unleash centrifugal forces that will send Palestinians in different directions: West Bankers and Gazans asserting their own "insider" interests, refugees asserting refugees' interests, and Palestinian citizens of the two key neighboring states--Jordan and Israel--asserting their own interests apart from the larger nationalist cause.