Saturday, November 13, 2004

Yasser Arafat is dead - now what?

Yasser Arafat's leadership in the Palestinian territories was a classic cult of personality, all revolving around Arafat, and leaving no clear successor. Except today, Arafat is dead and buried - now what?

Arafat leaves a big pair of shoes to fill, but there are a lot of people who would like to try to fill them. Mahmoud Abbas is there, but some Palestinians consider him either corrupt, a puppet, a pushover, or all three. Hamas may be planning to nominate a candidate - it will be interesting to see who.

The most interesting candidate who's thrown his hat into the ring is Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli jail for murder. Barghouti has publicly advocated violence against Israel, and Israel has indicated they have no intention of releasing him.

Barghouti is popular among the Palestinians, and I suspect much of that popularity stems from the fact that he is in an Israeli jail. A person who is in jail is like a legend - he can do no wrong (partly becuase he can't really do anything while he's in jail). Plus, there is the saying, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", and some Palestinians may be tempted to vote for Barghouti just because they know the Israelis don't like him. For them, each vote for Barghouti is their own private way of sticking it to Israel; sending a personal message to Israel saying, "GO F&#K YOURSELF!"

But, this is exactly the reason Barghouti is the wrong choice for them. Not only would Barghouti be incapable of contributing any value to the political process from prison (other than as a ceremonial figurehead), his infamy in Israel would severely impair his ability to negotiate any sort of peace agreement with the Israelis.

This was the same problem Yasser Arafat always had: with his background, many Israelis still thought of him as a terrorist and did not trust him.

What the Palestinians need is a real leader. A leader who is incorruptable. An strong willed and independent-minded leader who can stand up for the viewpoints of the Palestinians and not be considered anyone's puppet, patsy, or pushover. A leader whose hands are not stained with the blood of innocents. A leader like this could earn the admiration of the Palestinian people as well as the respect of the Israelis, and would be the best chance the Palestinians have to negotiate a lasting peace and achieve their dream of their own independent state.

Will this happen? Will the Palestinians be able to elect a leader like that? Watching the events around Arafat's funeral, I am not hopeful: the Palestinians are just too angry right now. By law the Palestinian election must happen within 60 days, and I don't think they will have calmed down much by then to be able to think logically about who to vote for. Many will probably allow their anger to vote for them, and choose the candidate they think the Israelis will like the least; and we will be in for another few years of intifada and bus bombings, Israeli bulldozers razing neighborhoods, and lots more suffering on both sides of the conflict.

For the sake of world peace, I sincerely hope I'm wrong.....