For the last several days, the world has been watching the last agonies of Yasser Arafat's life. Pundits suggest that having him out of the political scene might open up new possibilities in the Middle East. Finally, they say, the United States will be able to take the lead in moving Israel and the Palestinians toward a two-state solution. At long last, the Israelis themselves might have new leaders to deal with who are not as hated as Arafat has become.
I do not believe any of this. The death of Arafat is not going to make the political situation between Israelis and Palestinians any easier or safer. On the contrary, it will make the situation worse and more dangerous. Those who are predicting happier times have an investment in the "peace process," but these investments are already bankrupt.
In the contemporary Middle East it is not true, at all, that foreign policy is a function of some long-ranged vision for peace. Instead, any new policies, whether announced by the United States or Israel or the Palestinian Authority, can exist only as it serves the domestic interests of the major protagonists. To begin with the most powerful of the three, the United States, now that Bush has won reelection, it is clear that a solution to the Palestinian/Israel conflict would not serve the Republicans' domestic interests. It may be useful for the President to talk about peace, but it's unlikely such talk would reach the point where Jews on the Right in Israel and the United States, or the oil barons of Saudi Arabia, would really have to pay some price for a new arrangement.
The Israelis are, of course, in a different position: the majority of Israel's population does yearn for peace. Nonetheless, the most vehement factions in Israel are opposed to peace because it will mean giving up territory in Gaza and the West Bank. They will fight bitterly against any policies that lead to such sacrifices.
Most immediately, there is almost no prospect that the Palestinians will suddenly have change of heart after Arafat's death. In the battle for succession for Arafat, what will play well immediately in Gaza and the West Bank are declarations of undying commitment to the long held dream of Palestine without the Jews. Anyone who thinks there is at this moment a substantial constituency among the Palestinians planning for peace with the Israelis simply is not paying attention to what the Palestinians have been saying over time.
Within Israel and among the Palestinians, peace is not a winning issue; it is rather an invitation to disaster for the politicians who raise that slogan. The end of Arafat's career will not bring hope, not in any immediate future. It can only be an invitation to more violence, both within each of the combatant communities and in their relationship to each other. Many centuries ago, the head of the Persian Empire used to send out a delegation to look over his provinces. Some came back and suggested reform, but invariably the Persian emperors turned down such pleas. They insisted that better the miseries that existed than the new ones that would come in an age of reform. I have reason to dislike Arafat, but I do not think that his probable successors will be any better. Let us temper our hopes and pray for some quiet.