Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Panel Examines Life after Arafat

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Panel Examines Life after Arafat

Article excerpt

A panel at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC examined "Palestinian Politics after Arafat: What's next?" The panel, planned following news of the Palestinian president's illness and hospitalization in France, was held Nov. 11, the day of Arafat's death.

Amjad Atallah, a former member of the Palestinian Authority's Negotiation Affairs Department, said that, when discussing the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, "any attempt to pin the blame on any single individual" (as many analysts and politicians have done with Yasser Arafat) is "disingenuous."

The three major institutions that have survived Arafat are the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Fatah, Atallah noted. Because Arafat was a "larger than life figure," he noted, these institutions, which have separate functions and distinct legal mandates, "tended to get blurred and confused in the personality of the president as an individual."

Recognized by the Arab League as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO is the party that negotiates and signs treaties with Israel, Atallah explained. Fatah is the largest Palestinian grassroots secular movement, with a presence in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The PA was created through an agreement between the PLO and Israel to administer certain aspects of Palestinian life under occupation. One of the first effects of Arafat's death, Atallah explained, is these three organizations have "once again split into their original mandates."

Mahmoud Abbas became PLO chairman a few hours after Arafat's death. Fatah is now led by Faruq Qaddumi, one of the group's original founders, who remained in exile and did not accept the Oslo process, charging that Palestinians were functioning as an administering authority for the Israeli occupation. Rawhi Fattuh will serve as president of the PA for 60 days, until elections are held.

However, according to Atallah, more important than organizational structure is "the question of popular legitimacy, which is now going to be the single greatest concern of the Palestinian leaders." Atallah presented three possible scenarios for electing a new Palestinian president. The first option is to present PLO chairman Abbas as a candidate, in effect combining the PLO and PA positions. If the Israelis do not facilitate the elections, but continue to close borders, impose curfews or launch incursions into Palestinian areas, then the PLO by decree can appoint a president, who must then be approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council, undermining chances for a democratic election.

Atallah cited as a last option keeping the PA and PLO positions separate, meaning the PA presidency would be ceremonial.

In moving forward, he concluded, the Palestinians are concerned with "developing a system of governance.. .that relies on Palestinian popular will and not on American policy or Israeli goodwill."

Reflecting on Arafat's death, Shibley TeIhami, professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, said the late Palestinian leader's legacy is that he made Palestinian statehood possible, legitimized Israel in the Arab world, and "wanted to make sure that Israel's path to making peace with the Arab world went through the Palestinians."

Arafat became prominent following the "humiliating Arab defeat" in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. …

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