Friday, November 12, 2004

Infighting Feared in the Middle East

In the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, many well-informed voices have raised concerns that a damaging factional struggle might break out and possibly damage the peace process. On one side, a hard-line sect united in adulation of their leader and in their trust in force. On the other, the forces of an established bureaucracy hoping to reopen negotiations. One faction seeks to grab every scrap of advantage from Arafat's death and intensify the violence. One faction wants to show willing. There is a real danger of civil war.

But I'm not talking about the Palestinians.

The Israeli government is divided. The Foreign Ministry sees the death of Arafat and the rise of a new leadership as a priceless opportunity to revive the stacks of diplomatic proposals kicked around since the Taba talks in early 2001. Within 60 days, the Palestinian constitution requires elections for a new president. What better chance to make a fresh start? In this view, Israel should cooperate in the election process by pulling out troops, removing closures and unfreezing millions of dollars held in Palestinian tax revenues. A good moment to restore some diplomatic credit, unwind some of the militarisation, and get back on the road map. They also realise that even the US could hardly support them in preventing democratic elections from taking place. (Readers with good memories may recall that this was itself a peace proposal a couple of years ago - the Israeli army would be withdrawn in order for elections to take place.) And anyway, reducing the militarisation would give back many of the levers of pressure Israel once held. Once used, most of them cannot be used more - so this would help to restore Israel's options.

The other faction is stronger in parts of the military establishment and especially on the Right. Arafat, the piggish old terrorist, is dead. Victory! Time to rub it in, to step up settlement building, to encourage disunity among Palestinians, to finally occupy the Muqata. This side has been willing to threaten violence in the event that its ideas are ignored, as in the case of the Gaza evacuation plan. What will decide the future of Israel and of Palestine is not "infighting" among the Palestinians - so far absent - but infighting among Israel's own warring factions. After all, it will not matter very much who gets the presidency if nothing changes in the war.

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