The Middle East Channel

Arafat's ghost

Yasir Arafat had a canny knack for ensuring that Palestine never strayed too far from the world's headlines. His ghost may turn out to be no less resourceful. Today, a multinational team of medical and forensic experts exhumed the late Palestinian president's remains, as part of an investigation to determine whether he was poisoned. And, Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly, Arafat's favorite international forum, appears poised to confer the status of "non-member observer state" upon Palestine. The timing of these two developments appears coincidental, but what happens next may determine the fate of another apparent victim of foul play: the Middle East peace process.

The decision to exhume Arafat's remains, almost eight years after his demise, is itself illuminating. Why, many have asked, wasn't it done earlier, when potential evidence of wrongdoing remained fresh? Although it is tempting to suspect a conspiracy, the reality likely hews closer to Hamlet than Julius Caesar. Just after Arafat's death in 2004, a negotiated settlement of the conflict remained a tantalizing prospect: Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a new Palestinian-Israeli agreement on movement and access was concluded later the same year, and Palestinians returned to the polls in 2006 for the first time in a decade. While many Palestinians suspected from the start that Arafat died from unnatural causes, their leadership, like the court of Denmark in Hamlet, preferred not to be confronted with potentially unpleasant facts about the late patriarch's death. Why inflame the situation just as tempers were cooling? Why risk souring relations with Israel and the United States when progress was close at hand? Wasn't it possible, after all, that Arafat had been the obstacle to peace all along?

These questions, like the hopes that animated them, have been put to rest. They are casualties not only of Israeli actions -- particularly unconstrained settlement construction and the Netanyahu government's uncompromising stance on borders -- but also of international inaction. Indeed, the Arafat investigation and the disappointing response to last year's effort to secure recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations are best understood as two acts in the same play. Both were conceived primarily to stem the decline in the Palestinian Authority's domestic legitimacy and its increasing invisibility on the international stage. Both reflect the recognition that bilateral negotiations with Netanyahu are a dead end street. And both point to a startling lack of agency on the part of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who seems unable to make any decision without involving the entire international community. But whereas last year's U.N. bid was undertaken in the hope that the world would act to resuscitate a dying process, the Arafat investigation can offer little more than a pretext for finally declaring it dead. 

What should we expect in the third act of this tragedy? The outcome of the recent Gaza crisis points toward two developments that could yield a surprise ending. First, President Morsi's prominent role in brokering the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel marks a welcome step away from the United States' near total monopoly on mediation between Palestinians and Israelis, providing an important counter-balance to reflexive American support for even the most unreasonable of Israeli positions. Ascendant regional powers like Egypt and Turkey are unlikely to stick to tired old scripts like the hypocritical "Quartet principles" (which require Palestinian parties to recognize Israel, embrace past agreements, and renounce violence without obliging Israel to take reciprocal steps) or the canard that the conflict can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations. As the only two states in the region that deal directly with Israel, Egypt and Turkey also have the capacity to influence strategic calculations in Jerusalem in a way that idle threats of a third Palestinian intifada simply cannot.

Second, Hamas has demonstrated that it will not be forced from the stage. Its ability to extract at least tacit agreement to long-sought concessions from Netanyahu -- a halt to assassinations and steps toward the lifting of the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza -- and its support from Islamist governments in Ankara, Cairo, and Doha have buoyed both its popularity at home and its legitimacy abroad. To the extent that Hamas' improved fortunes help to overcome the stalemate in Palestinian unity talks, that too would be a welcome turn. Indeed, the time has come for the international community -- and particularly the United States -- to stop stoking divisions among Palestinian factions, for no progress toward peace can be achieved so long as Palestine's leaders are singing from different sheets.

On the same note, when the General Assembly convenes Thursday, its members should vote in ways that demonstrate to Hamas the benefits of acting in concert with the leadership in Ramallah.  Support at the United Nations from European governments would both offer Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority a badly needed boost and could also lay the foundation for an eventual return to peace talks. Abbas should not, of course, accept the absurd demands reportedly attached by Britain to its vote. According to polls, few Palestinians support returning to negotiations without a credible Israeli settlement freeze (a condition, lest we forget, that was initially set not only by the Palestinians but also by the Quartet). Moreover, pledging not to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, under which Israelis could eventually be prosecuted for war crimes in Palestinian territory, would defeat the very purpose of obtaining U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. That said, Abbas may usefully commit not to turn to the ICC for a one-year period, pending a halt to unlawful actions by Israel and a resumption of peace talks. In that way, the specter of ICC prosecution could serve as an incentive for progress, rather than an impediment to it.

In such circumstances, the results of the investigation into Arafat's death may turn out to be inconsequential -- a sideshow, rather than a showstopper. On the other hand, if the governments in Ramallah and Gaza miss another opportunity to bring an end to their disgraceful disunity, if the United States undertakes to punish the Palestinians for pursuing national reconciliation or self-determination, and if the rest of the international community resists imposing costs on Israel for criminal and incendiary policies, Arafat's ghost may prove less benign. In such a climate, a verdict of poisoning has the potential to lead not only to a decisive break in Palestinian-Israeli political and security relations, but also to vicious recriminations among Palestinian leaders.  Ironically, Hamas -- itself no friend of Arafat's -- demanded early on that his remains be exhumed in order to "reach those dirty people who assisted in the murder," and it is not difficult to imagine the Islamic movement emerging triumphant in the chaos likely to ensue. But that act, of course, has yet to be written, and it remains to be seen who will be left standing when the curtains fall.

Omar M. Dajani is Professor of Law at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. Previously, he served as legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel. 

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