November 19, 2004
By James Phillips
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died
on November 11, has left the Middle East a more brutal, nasty, and
toxic place. Arafat's disastrous leadership exploded the once
promising Arab-Israeli peace process and left the Palestinians
mired in growing violence, anarchy, and misery. Although Arafat's
death has removed one obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, his
legacy of terrorism has poisoned the prospects for future
negotiations. There is little chance of attaining a genuine peace
until Arafat's successors disavow his failed policies, reject
terrorism, and build mutual trust with Israel. This will take time,
probably several years--if it happens at all. In the meantime, the
United States should avoid the temptation to convene a premature
summit that will likely fail to resolve intractable final status
issues. Instead, Washington should focus on incremental, short-term
steps to reduce violence, facilitate Palestinian elections, and
encourage Palestinian cooperation with Israel's planned withdrawal
Game. Arafat welcomed the peace process, but not genuine
peace. He played a double game until the very end, often extending
the olive branch to Israel when speaking in English to Western
audiences while calling for jihad and "martyrdom" when speaking in
Arabic to his own people. Throughout more than a decade of
protracted negotiations, he never permanently halted his use of
terrorism, despite repeatedly committing to do so.
Arafat went along with negotiations as
long as he gained more than he lost. The Oslo peace process, which
began in 1993, anointed him the sole leader of the Palestinians,
rescued him from near irrelevance in Tunisia, allowed him to return
to Gaza in 1994, and strengthened his stranglehold on Palestinian
politics. Arafat supported the Oslo process to pocket a long list
of Israeli concessions, including recognition of the Palestine
Liberation Organization; the acceptance of Arafat's Palestinian
Authority, which would become an embryonic Palestinian state; the
withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Palestinian areas; and
the negotiation of a two-state solution that would involve
extensive Israeli territorial concessions--including Palestinian
control over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
However, when it came time to negotiate a
final settlement, Arafat squandered an historic opportunity to
negotiate peace at the July 2000 Camp David summit. He rejected
Israeli and American proposals without offering a counterproposal
and walked away from the negotiating table. In September 2000,
Arafat unleashed the second intifada, the violent uprising that
drove the last nails into the coffin of the Oslo peace process.
Arafat leaves Palestinians much worse off
than when he returned to Gaza in July 1994. Under his capricious
leadership, the Palestinian Authority became corrupt,
unaccountable, and incompetent. His refusal to end terrorism
poisoned the peace negotiations, led Israel to reoccupy Palestinian
areas and close its borders to Palestinian workers, and crippled
the Palestinian economy. Palestinian parents have been horrified to
find their children brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers and
cannon fodder for Arafat's revolutionary pipedreams.
ultimate beneficiaries of Arafat's failed policies are likely to be
the Islamic radicals of Hamas, who hope to pick up the pieces after
the discrediting of the Palestinian Authority. Although Arafat
often escaped criticism because he had managed to turn himself into
the human flag of the Palestinian movement, Arafat's successors
inside the Palestinian Authority have little popular support or
personal charisma. Arafat's death will likely leave a power vacuum
that will trigger a lengthy power struggle. Arafat never groomed a
successor, because doing so could create a threat to his own
personal power. Initially, he will probably be succeeded by an
unstable collective leadership composed of several of his
Until the succession struggle is settled,
no Palestinian leader is likely to take political risks to revive
the stalled negotiations with Israel. In fact, political rivals are
more likely to compete with each other to see who can take the
hardest line against Israel. Once a new leader has consolidated
power, he is likely to grow increasingly pragmatic in order to stay
in power. At that point, the dynamics of Palestinian politics might
encourage a successor to take personal political risks to renew
negotiations with Israel in order to relieve the misery that
Arafat's ruinous policies have imposed on Palestinians.
Steps. Incremental steps are preferable to high-risk
summitry. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proposed an overly
ambitious summit to jumpstart the stalled peace negotiations, but
the Bush Administration should not rush to engage Arafat's
successors in a premature bid to forge a final settlement. Such a
push could backfire by energizing Palestinian hardliners and
discrediting pragmatic leaders before they can consolidate power. A
hastily prepared summit could break up in disarray or produce an
agreement that Arafat's successors may not have the power or
legitimacy to implement. Presidential involvement should be ruled
out until the diplomatic sherpas have mapped out a path for
attaining a summit agreement acceptable to both sides.
Instead, the Bush Administration should
adhere to its principled policy of urging Palestinians to halt
terrorism and reform the Palestinian Authority to develop a
responsible, transparent, and democratic leadership capable of
advancing Palestinian interests by reaching a genuine peace with
Israel. To help Palestinians along this path, Washington should
focus on brokering a ceasefire and fostering bilateral
Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on elections to fill Arafat's
office as leader of the Palestinian Authority. President George W.
Bush should also appoint an ambassador-at-large to encourage
Palestinians to coordinate with Israel on its withdrawal from Gaza,
scheduled for next year. Over time, the mutual trust created by
ending the violence and resolving immediate issues could grow
enough to provide a hopeful basis for addressing the many thorny
final status issues.
Conclusion. Arafat's death could lead to
a long-term opportunity for progress in Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations, but his legacy of terrorism and treachery remain a
formidable obstacle to peace. The United States cannot rescue the
Palestinian people from bad leadership, nor can it impose a lasting
peace on reluctant Palestinians. Until a new Palestinian leadership
has emerged that rejects Arafat's legacy of terrorism, there is
little hope of achieving a final settlement of the
James Phillips is Research Fellow in
Middle Eastern Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies at The Heritage
Until a new Palestinian leadership has emerged that rejects YasserArafat's legacy of terrorism, there is little hope of achieving afinal Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Washington should focuson incremental, short-term steps to reduce violence, facilitatePalestinian elections, and encourage Palestinian cooperation withIsrael's planned withdrawal from Gaza.
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
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