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Arafat's last days

International | President Bush may soon face a new crisis in the Middle East: the death of Yasser Arafat

Issue: "Bush's moral mandate," Nov. 13, 2004

The freshly reelected President Bush may soon face a new crisis in the Middle East: the death of Yasser Arafat and a bloody battle of succession that could further destabilize an already war-torn Middle East.

The worst case scenario may actually be the most likely. The godfather of the Palestinian revolution fell into a coma Nov. 4 in a French military hospital outside of Paris where he was airlifted two weeks ago after collapsing in his Ramallah compound.

With no heir apparent waiting in the wings, a bloody war of succession between Arafat deputies in the PLO and the forces of Hamas and Islamic Jihad could engulf the West Bank and Gaza in a Palestinian civil war, killing scores of innocent Muslims and Christians, dispatching suicide bombers to attack Israeli civilian population centers, and derailing the peace process.

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One way to think about the dynamic at work here is to recall the scene in the first Academy Award-winning Godfather film when Don Corleone suddenly drops dead of a heart attack while playing with his grandson in the tomato patch. Every crime boss in the Big Apple wants to succeed the Don. A mafia turf war erupts, triggering a fictional bloodbath and two Hollywood sequels.

Substitute Yasser Arafat for Marlon Brando, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip for New York, and you will begin to get a sense of the trouble that may lie ahead. Internecine warfare among rival Palestinian factions has been mounting as Mr. Arafat's health has been declining.

In July 2003, Palestinian assassins fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Gaza office of Major General Musa Arafat, narrowly missing the chief of military intelligence who also happens to be Yasser Arafat's cousin. The major general also narrowly escaped a car bomb attack aimed at him just last month.

In February 2004, Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa-a longtime Arafat ally-resigned amidst an epidemic of Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence. "I have submitted my resignation to President Arafat because I see my city collapsing and I don't want to stand idly by and watch this collapse," said Mr. Shakaa.

In March of 2004, Palestinian gunmen in Gaza shot and killed Khalil al-Zebin, 59, an Arafat advisor.

For a time, Palestinian authorities feared Mr. Arafat himself could be assassinated by Israel or fellow Palestinians. "If Arafat is killed, the Palestinian Authority is killed," warned Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat last fall, adding that "total anarchy" would break out in the West Bank and Gaza as local militias killed moderate Palestinian leaders, "me included."

The Bush administration has been correct to insist upon regime change in the West Bank and Gaza. A Central Intelligence Agency analysis made public in December 2003 suggested that the death of Mr. Arafat could eventually clear the way to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Palestinians deserve better than Yasser Arafat. So does Israel. But as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the White House should be prepared for a tough, tumultuous transition.

Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg


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