Khalil Shikaki. Foreign Affairs. Volume 81, Issue 1. January/February 2002.
Who Let the Dogs of War Out?
Has Yasir Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), orchestrated and led the second Palestinian intifada in order to gain popularity and legitimacy while weakening Israel and forcing it to accept extreme Palestinian demands? Or has the uprising been a spontaneous response by an enraged but disorganized Palestinian “street” to Likud Party leader (and later Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al Haram al Sharif, and the failure of the Oslo peace process to produce an end to Israeli military occupation? Most Israelis take the first position, whereas most Palestinians take the second. Both are mistaken.
The truth is that the intifada that began in late September 2000 has been a response by a “young guard” in the Palestinian nationalist movement not only to Sharon’s visit and the stalled peace process, but also to the failure of the “old guard” in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to deliver Palestinian independence and good governance. The young guard has turned to violence to get Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip unilaterally (as it withdrew from South Lebanon in May 2000) and simultaneously to weaken the Palestinian old guard and eventually displace it.
More than a year into the intifada, the young guard’s commitment to both goals is unshakable, and with some reason. The Israelis have begun seriously to consider unilateral withdrawal, and the young guard has assumed de facto control over most PA civil institutions, penetrated PA security services, and forced Arafat to appease the newcomers for fear of losing his own legitimacy or bringing on a Palestinian civil war. In fact, at this point only the prospect of a truly viable peace process and a serious PA commitment to good governance can provide Israel and the old guard with an exit strategy for their current predicaments.
The intifada has crystallized two important trends within Palestinian politics and society. The first, a split between old and young within the nationalist movement, has greatly constrained the PA leadership’s capacity to manage the current crisis and engage in substantive negotiations with Israel in the short term. The second, a broader decline in the power of the nationalists relative to the Islamists (such as Hamas), has created a long-term challenge to the nationalists’ ability to lead the Palestinian people.
When the Oslo agreement was signed in September 1993, two-thirds of Palestinians immediately supported it. Their expectations were high: Oslo was supposed to usher in the end of occupation, the establishment of an open and democratic political system, and a quick improvement in economic and living conditions. But the golden era of the peace process did not last long. Palestinian popular approval of the Oslo process peaked at 80 percent in early 1996, and support for violence against Israeli targets bottomed out at 20 percent. Just before the Palestinian general elections in January of that year, support for Fatah, the mainstream nationalist movement headed by Arafat, reached the unprecedented level of 55 percent, and Arafat’s own popularity leaped to 65 percent. Meanwhile, support for all opposition groups combined—both nationalist and Islamist—dropped to 20 percent, down from 40 percent two years earlier.
When the current Palestinian political system came into existence after those elections, it had real legitimacy. Seventy-five percent of eligible voters participated, despite the call by opposition groups for a boycott. Arafat received more than 70 percent of the vote, with about 22 percent casting blank ballots and only 8 percent voting for his rival, Samiha Khalil. Fatah won 77 percent of the seats in the new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
Between 1993 and 2001, with the sole exception of 1994, Palestinian support for the Oslo agreement never dropped below 60 percent. But Palestinian hopes began to fade away as a result of both Binyamin Netanyahu’s election as Israel’s prime minister in mid-1996 and the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian expectations that the peace process would soon lead to statehood and a permanent settlement dropped from 44 percent during Shimon Peres’ prime ministership in 1995-96 to 30 percent in the first year under Netanyahu. Four years later, with Ehud Barak having replaced Netanyahu and Jewish settlements continuing to expand, expectation of a permanent settlement sank to 24 percent. Once Ariel Sharon won election as Israel’s head of government in early 2001, a mere 11 percent of Palestinians clung to that hope.
The loss of confidence in the ability of the peace process to deliver a permanent agreement on acceptable terms had a dramatic impact on the level of Palestinian support for violence against Israelis, including suicide bombings against civilians. In July 2000, after U.S. President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to broker a final peace settlement at Camp David but before the eruption of the second intifada, already 52 percent of Palestians approved of the use of violence; a year later, that figure reached the unprecedented level of 86 percent. Other casualties of Oslo’s demise have been the popularity of Arafat and that of his Fatah organization. The Camp David summit brought Arafat’s popularity, which had been dropping steadily since 1996, down to 47 percent. A year later it hit 33 percent. Support for Fatah, meanwhile, dropped to 37 percent in July 2000, and a year later fell to 29 percent.
Surprisingly, before the intifada the Palestinian Islamists did not significantly benefit from Arafat and Fatah’s decline—deserters from the mainstream nationalist cause simply chose to remain on the political sidelines, and the Islamists’ support levels hovered consistently around the mid-teens. The intifada changed that dynamic, however. By July 2001, the Islamists’ popularity had increased to 27 percent. And for the first time ever, support for Islamist and nationalist opposition groups, combined at 31 percent, surpassed the 30 percent garnered by Fatah and its allies.
The collapsing peace process and deteriorating economic and living conditions are not the only factors bleeding the ranks of Arafat and Fatah’s supporters. The Palestinian public’s evaluation of the status of Palestinian democracy, official corruption, and governmental performance have moved from bad to worse over the past six years. In 1996, 43 percent of those surveyed gave Palestinian democracy and human rights a good bill of health; by 2001, only 21 percent agreed. Over the same period, positive evaluations of the performance of PA institutions dropped from 64 percent to 40 percent, and the belief that the PA was corrupt increased from 49 percent to 83 percent.
The intifada has only aggravated the Palestinian public’s disappointments. The unrelenting Israeli siege and closure of Palestinian territories, with the consequent debilitating restrictions on movement, have practically halted Palestinian civil, social, and economic life. In July 2000, fewer than one-third of Palestinians believed that violence would help achieve goals in ways that negotiations could not; a year later 59 percent had come to that conclusion. Indeed, after nine months of the intifada, 71 percent thought that the fighting had already had such an effect.
The perceived failure of the peace process, combined with a highly negative assessment of all issues related to PA governance, delivery of services, and leadership, damaged the legitimacy of the PA and the nationalist old guard it represents. It created an opportunity for other forces within the Palestinian community to step forward, and this is precisely what the younger generation of leaders did in the fall of 2000—taking advantage of Sharon’s provocation and the subsequent turmoil to seize the moment and challenge their internal rivals.
Changing of the Guard
Between 1967 and 1994 the Palestinian national leadership lived in a diaspora, with the PLO headquarters moving from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia. Local leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, sought to assert itself from time to time, only to be decapitated by the Israelis or discouraged by the PLO. The PLO’s defeat at the hands of Israeli soldiers when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 lessened its centrality in Palestinian politics and weakened its hold on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Indeed, the center of gravity in Palestinian politics began to shift from the outside to the inside. It was the newly emerging leadership in the occupied territories, for example, that initiated and sustained the first intifada from 1987 to 1993.
In 1994, however, implementing the Declaration of Principles negotiated at Oslo, the PLO leadership returned home to the West Bank and Gaza to establish the Palestinian Authority. Since then, the relationship between the older, established nationalist leadership and the younger, emerging one has not been easy. Efforts by the old guard to co-opt or accommodate the young leaders of the first intifada have not always succeeded, chiefly because of the old guard’s authoritarian tendencies. Nonetheless, the euphoria accompanying the partial Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, the holding of the first national elections in 1996, and the establishment of the first Palestinian government in modern history have produced an appearance of harmony.
The old guard is composed of the founders of the Palestinian national movement, together with the leaders of various guerrilla organizations and the PLO bureaucracy. These men, few of whom are under 50, have spent most of their political lives outside the Palestinian territories. This political establishment dominates both Fatah and the PA. Key figures in this group, such as Mahmud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazin), Ahmad Qurie (also known as Abu Ala), and Nabil Sha’ath, have also controlled the Palestinian team in the peace negotiations.
The young guard is composed of newly emerging local leaders as well as the leaders of the first intifada. Most are no older than 40. A few serve in the PA cabinet and the PLC, and as heads or senior members of different security services. But as a whole, the group lacks cohesion, leadership, and formal authority. Indeed, certain younger nationalists are known as gangsters or warlords among some of their fellow Palestinians; others, such as Sami Abu Samhadaneh in Rafah and Aatif Ebiat in Bethlehem, have been targeted for assassination by the Israeli army, and the latter was killed this past October. But certain prominent members of the young guard, such as Marwan Barghouti in Ramallah and Husam Khader in Nablus, are more respectable. Although the young guard has little voice in the main PLO institutions, it has more power in Fatah bodies such as the High Committee and the Revolutionary Council, as well as in Fatah’s semi- militia, the Tanzim, and armed wing, al Aqsa Brigades.
The political establishment derives its legitimacy from the PLO’s historical legacy as well as from the Oslo agreement and its outcome. It controls the financial resources of the PLO and the PA, receives diplomatic recognition from the international community, and controls the PA bureaucracy and security services. The newer political arrivals, however, have drawn strength during the second intifada from their alliance with the Islamist opposition and from overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the progress of peace negotiations and national reconstruction. These insurgents have used these tools to neutralize the old guard’s control of official state power. And although the armed wing of the young guard may still be small, it has been able to quietly take control of many of the crumbling PA civil institutions and deter any attempts by the PA security services at a crackdown. The young guard has sought not to create new national institutions but rather to work for control of the existing ones.
The old guard has a clear leadership hierarchy. Arafat does not simply dominate this group; its survival depends on his continued presence and support. The young guard also recognizes Arafat’s leadership, but it does not derive its legitimacy from him; indeed, it is Arafat who needs to demonstrate credibility to the younger leaders, by tolerating their alliance with the Islamists and their violent confrontations with the Israeli army. Since March 2001, as Israel has begun targeting the regular PA police and security forces, Arafat has even allowed units from the Presidential Guard and the Palestinian intelligence services to participate in attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers, despite the risks involved. He apparently feels the alternative method by which to gain the approval of the young guard—opening up the Palestinian political system and encouraging a true transition to democracy—is even less attractive.
But the young guard continues to demand more from Arafat’s camp. It wants transparency, accountability, a campaign against corruption, and more direct confrontation with Israel. It has also called for the establishment of a national unity government that would include not only representatives from its own ranks, but also senior members of Islamist and other opposition groups. And it has strongly supported local and international demands for good governance, including respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a stronger role for the legislature, and stronger and more efficient public institutions.
Ends vs. Means
The young guard strongly opposes any cease-fire agreement that would entail a crackdown on Palestinian nationalist or Islamist militants. Indeed, it has publicly condemned both the Mitchell Report (the conclusions of a fact-finding committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to look into the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence) and the Tenet Plan (the cease-fire and security plan put forth by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet in June 2001). Rather than embrace these initiatives for ending the violence, the young guard wants Arafat to “come out of the closet” by publicly endorsing the intifada’s goals and methods and by ordering PA security forces to join the armed confrontations. The old guard, on the other hand, doubts the efficacy of violence and is critical of even the minor involvement of some PA security forces in the fighting. Nevertheless, many of its members are convinced that Arafat cannot seriously confront the young guard without a reasonable chance for a peace agreement with Israel, and some accept the argument that on the way to reaching this goal the occasional participation of official security services in the fighting is essential. When the time comes to end the armed confrontations, they reason, only those with a credible record of fighting will have the domestic legitimacy and resolve to confront and detain those who want to continue.
Some members of the old guard outside the PA have sought to distance themselves from the government and establish a new forum for political mobilization and reform. In January 2001, for example, the speaker of the Palestinian National Council, which represents Palestians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in the diaspora, demanded that the PA fully address government corruption and the absence of the rule of law, called on the members of Arafat’s cabinet to resign, and called for the establishment of a “national independence organization.” The young guard did not embrace the idea, however, and has sought to assert itself not through the open condemnation of the PA but rather through defeat of the Israeli army.
As for its ultimate political objectives, despite what some in Israel and the West think, the young guard shares with the old regime the goals of an independent Palestinian state (with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital) living side by side in peace with Israel, and a just solution to the refugee problem. Although most members of the young guard advocate a more hawkish version of this basic position than their older counterparts, their position probably reflects the heightened threat perception generated by daily bloodshed; some members of the group, such as Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al Quds University and Arafat’s representative in East Jerusalem, advocate quite moderate positions on the peace process and oppose pursuing their goals through violence.
The chief difference between the young guard and the old guard with respect to Israel lies in how they define victory in the battle against occupation. Arafat’s group seeks a negotiated settlement that would not only end the occupation but also allow the established leaders to remain in power in Palestine for years to come. By contrast, the young guard does not consider negotiations a necessary part of the equation; a unilateral Israeli withdrawal or separation would suit it just as well. The insurgents could not oppose a negotiated settlement supported by the majority of the Palestinians, should one ever emerge. But they realize that only the old guard can negotiate such a deal, for only it has a unified national leadership and a well-articulated vision, as well as experience and connections with Israelis. So for the young guard, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal or separation is a more attractive way of achieving Palestinian nationalist objectives: in bypassing the negotiations between the Israelis and the PA, it would render the old guard irrelevant and elevate the young guard to power.
At first the PA establishment welcomed the new intifada because it thought the increased pressure on Israel would strengthen its hand at the negotiating table. The young guard, however, saw the uprising as a means to disrupt negotiations rather than pursue them. The failure to achieve a breakthrough at Camp David affirmed these younger leaders’ belief that the Palestinians could end the occupation on their own terms only through armed popular confrontation.
To increase pressure on Israel and to strengthen its domestic position, in the first weeks of the intifada the young guard formed an alliance with the Islamists and other opposition forces. Even though they disagree over ultimate objectives, the young guard prefers to have the Islamists in its coalition and under its leadership, not least because it remembers how during the first intifada the Islamists created a parallel leadership, institutional structure, and armed wing.
The generation gap is not the only important division in Palestinian politics and society. The divide between nationalists and Islamists is also crucial, as is a sometimes hidden debate between advocates and opponents of the Oslo peace process. Some young guard members, particularly those already integrated into PA and PLO institutions—along with those such as Nusseibeh who are influenced by the tradition of nonviolence—agree with most of the old guard that the current uprising is a dramatic mistake. Given the current political stalemate and overwhelming popular support for armed confrontation, however, this group has been marginalized and remains quiet.
At the Crossroads
Whether Palestinian domestic tensions are resolved or exacerbated will depend on which of three possible scenarios emerges. If the simmering Palestinian-Israeli impasse continues, the chief beneficiary will be the Islamists. If Israel opts for a significant unilateral withdrawal or separation, however, the young guard will profit. And if the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships can agree on some form of significant negotiated settlement, whether transitional or permanent, the old guard will gain a new lease on life.
The continuation of the status quo would lead to a further drop in Palestinian support for the peace process and the compromises it entails, along with continued high levels of support for the use of violence. The PA’s legitimacy would continue to diminish, and the popularity of Arafat would decline along with it. The conflict between the old and young guards would further split and weaken the nationalist camp, with the latter gradually gaining ground on the former as a major leadership shift occurred. Arafat would probably continue in power, but his room for maneuver would be extremely constrained. If he were to disappear from the scene, his exit would hasten the demise of the old guard and lead to infighting among the members of the young guard looking to take their place. Those younger leaders currently integrated into the PA would probably join forces with the young guard and provide foot soldiers, public support, and above all political respectability. Whether Arafat remained or left, however, the general balance of power would continue to shift from nationalists to Islamists, with the latter camp eventually succeeding in becoming the dominant force in Palestinian politics and society.
An Israeli unilateral separation or withdrawal, in contrast, would give an unqualified victory to the young guard. Unilateral separation seems attractive because it does not require a partner on the other side. As they conclude that the Palestinians cannot or will not accept the compromises on offer, many Israelis are becoming convinced that separation is the only way to reduce their country’s vulnerabilities. A majority of Israelis today support the idea of building a wall to separate the two communities, although the extent of support for the plan depends on where the line of division would be drawn. The larger the Israeli withdrawal and evacuation, the more lukewarm the support becomes. Nonetheless, the idea has enough backing across the political spectrum to make it a credible possibility.
Any unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas would be compared to the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. The old guard would likely behave as the Lebanese government did, whereas the young guard would behave like Hezbollah. That is, the PA would not assume control over the newly evacuated territory and settlements, leaving a newly strengthened alliance of young nationalists and Islamists to declare those areas liberated and use them as bases from which to continue the fight against the Israeli army in the remaining occupied zones.
The young guard would likely scuttle any attempt by the PA leadership to use the occasion of an Israeli withdrawal as an opportunity to restart negotiations. Indeed, the younger leaders would probably try to convert their “victory” into open defiance or displacement of the old guard, thus consolidating their capture of the nationalist movement (although they would retain Arafat until an alternative leadership with more than local credentials emerged). Since the Palestinian public would view a unilateral Israeli withdrawal as a clear victory for the young guard, the fortunes of the nationalists in general would surge and those of the Islamists would fall.
A negotiated outcome, finally, would be the scenario under which the old guard could mount a comeback, because only the established PA leaders could deliver an agreement. And an Israeli-Palestinian accord that found support on the Palestinian street would reassert the PA’s leadership. The young guard and the Islamists would try to torpedo the agreement, but in doing so they would be going against popular will. More significant, those young nationalists currently integrated into the PA would join forces with the old guard and support the agreement, rather than defecting to the side of their generational colleagues as they might after a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. If accompanied by domestic political reform, moreover, a negotiated deal with Israel could create conditions under which the older and younger wings of the nationalist movement would unify and undercut the standing of the Islamists.
A Way Forward?
Most Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention the outside world, would probably prefer the negotiated settlement scenario. But is this outcome even possible at this point? Of the three conceivable kinds of settlement—a comprehensive agreement aimed at ending the conflict, a stabilization package designed to tone down the violence and shore up the status quo, and a transitional agreement that would be somewhere in between—none seems likely today. With strong U.S. and European leadership, however, Arafat and possibly even Sharon might find a stabiliziation agreement acceptable.
A comprehensive agreement would solve all the issues in dispute, including Jerusalem and refugees, and thereby put an end to the conflict. As the progress made during the post-Camp David negotiations showed, such a settlement is possible. If and when the two sides return to serious discussions, they will probably try to build on and complete the work started with the plan that President Clinton put forth in December 2000 and that was developed at Taba, Egypt, the next month. Merely stating the conditions under which such talks could take place, however, shows how far away they are. For a comprehensive settlement to emerge, three conditions would need to be met, none of which exists today. First, Israelis would need to bring into government a leadership and coalition less wedded to an ideology of greater Israel and willing to withdraw from almost all of the occupied Palestinian territory seized in 1967, evacuate most of the settlements, and accept a land swap to allow the remaining settlements to remain under Israeli control. Second, there would need to be a U.S. administration passionately committed to making the process succeed. And third, the old and young on the Palestinian side must achieve a unity of purpose. (This last condition could be met if the old guard embraced domestic political reform that opened up the political system and created a viable partnership between the two leadership groups.)
Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian public believes such an agreement is possible, and indeed neither is currently willing to lower its sights and accept the painful compromises that any such deal would require. This fact should lead not to despair but rather to the conclusion that only a strong leadership, with solid legitimacy, could consider taking such a path. If two such leaderships were ever to emerge, their publics would most likely be willing to accept, in the end, the compromises required for an agreement to be concluded—but not a day before they had to.
A stabilization package, meanwhile, could serve only as a stopgap measure aimed at calming the situation, restoring public confidence in the peace process, and facilitating a return to more promising final-status negotiations. Such a package would have to include the following: a cessation of all forms of violence, a return to pre-intifada military deployments, a freeze on settlement building, the implementation of existing interim commitments (most notably PA fulfillment of its obligations, and a credible Israeli withdrawal from the territories designated “Area C” under the Oslo agreement, which today represent approximately 60 percent of the West Bank and include sparsely populated areas as well as Israeli settlements and military bases and the roads between them), and an agreement to restart final-status talks. Both Israelis and Palestinians would be willing to support such a deal, as it can be rightly described and sold as a constructive way to carry out measures that both sides have already agreed to.
The current Israeli government could agree to such a package, although it would probably require far more active involvement by the international community, particularly the United States. A complete freeze on settlement building would not be popular. Also unpopular would be the last of the three redeployments from “Area C” which were mandated by the 1995 follow-up agreement to Oslo, the Israeli- Palestinian Interim Agreement. This final stage of redeployments should involve the evacuation of a number of small and isolated settlements and outposts in the West Bank. On the Palestinian side, successful implementation of such a deal would require the full integration of the young guard into the political system. Absent such integration, the old guard would have to enforce an unpopular cease- fire against a potentially strong and violent resistance by both its nationalist critics and the armed wings of the Islamist and other opposition groups. Even if the young guard were indeed brought on board, however, some minor violence would likely persist and eventually undermine the attempt at stabilization unless significant progress were taking place simultaneously.
Stabilization would require multinational monitoring as a confidence-building measure. International monitors would make it difficult for the young guard to attack Israeli targets without openly defying and embarrassing Arafat, which they might be loath to do. The deployment of monitors would thus increase the cost of cease- fire violations and increase the odds that the armistice would be self-policed. Monitoring would also help reassure each side about the intentions of the other while providing an independent trigger for the implementation of different phases of the agreement, thus creating incentives for both sides to comply fully.
If four additional components were added to a stabilization package, it could serve as a midterm transition arrangement. These four add-ons would be an Israeli evacuation of the whole Gaza Strip, including the removal of all settlements there; a further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank yielding full contiguity to the Palestinian territories there; the establishment of Palestinian statehood; and an extension of the mandate of international monitors to include the supervision of Israeli force deployment and Palestinian control over international border crossings. Sharon could call this a long-term interim agreement, whereas Arafat might prefer thinking of it as a new and improved mechanism for the implementation of the existing interim agreement, but if the desire were there to move forward, an upgraded stabilization package could be sold to both the Israeli and Palestinian publics.
Shimon Peres, now Israel’s foreign minister, has already advocated most of these components, and Sharon has reportedly been willing to discuss the Gaza evacuation since his first visit to the United States as prime minister. He has also repeatedly declared his willingness to accept the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. Still, any progress toward a transitional agreement would almost certainly have to come through a more modest stabilization package first.
Reform or Perish
The September 11 attacks had a significant but temporary impact on the Palestinian community. International outrage over terrorism and the U.S. determination to lead an alliance into combat against it created new fears while opening new opportunities. Arafat was determined to avoid any association with terror against civilians and eager to show solidarity with the United States. Most Palestinians, including the young guard, feared that Israel would take advantage of the crisis to launch a devastating attack against the PA-controlled areas. And Palestinian Islamists feared being linked to Osama bin Laden and his network. As a result, the Islamists refrained from suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, the young guard kept its distance from its allies, and the old guard’s international credentials became an asset and a useful cover. For Arafat, the cost of continued appeasement of the young guard increased dramatically, and he may well have feared for his own survival.
At the same time, however, the U.S. need for Arab and Islamic support in the war against terror provided opportunities. It was only in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, after all, that a U.S. administration could do what was necessary to bring about the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, which set up unprecedented direct peace negotiations between Israel and all its Arab neighbors. The old guard hopes for something similar this time as well. So Arafat has used pressure and persuasion to get his internal opponents to accept a temporary calm.
Neither the young guard nor the Islamists believed Sharon would play along, though, and so far their skepticism has proven justified. Committed to the notion that Arafat’s hand is behind every violent incident, Sharon and senior members of the Israeli army and intelligence community seem to have reached the conclusion that Arafat is no longer a partner. Indeed, they may be engaging in a steady but piecemeal process of delegitimation and liquidation of his authority. They have understood that the relative calm on the Palestinian side could be only temporary and have apparently sought to deny him the potential lifeline that post-September 11 international diplomacy might offer. The Israeli policy of assassination and incursions into territories that it had already handed over has continued, even though Arafat succeeded in reducing the level of violence by more than 80 percent in short order. And it may well be that even well-intentioned outside diplomatic efforts will be unable to force Arafat to make a full commitment to the cease- fire or check Sharon’s continued provocations.
Arafat and the old guard are thus unlikely to opt for a full cease- fire and may even lack the capacity to enforce one. Since the eruption of the second intifada they have had to walk a delicate tightrope: the PA no longer enjoys a monopoly over the use of force in its territory, its legitimacy is questioned by the Palestinian street, its public supports violence and opposes cracking down on either the Islamists or the young guard radicals, and no viable political process looms on the horizon. If Arafat acts to suppress his internal opponents he risks being seen, if successful, as an Israeli lackey or even another Sa’d Haddad (the commander of the South Lebanon Army created by Israel in the late 1970s to provide security for northern Israel). And if unsuccessful, he faces a civil war.
His choices are therefore limited. In a changed political environment, one in which Arafat obtains legitimacy and public support, he could move to enforce a cease-fire. Such an environment could be triggered by a jump-starting of the peace process, initiated and led by the United States and supported by the international community, but the odds of this happening are clearly very low.
Yet if the current situation looks bad, it is easy to imagine how it could get worse. Today Arafat’s leadership is the glue that keeps the old guard and young guard together, preventing a full and immediate takeover by the latter. Despite his poor communication skills, Arafat continues to give the Palestinian public a sense of stability, thus preventing large-scale breakdown of law and order. His presence deters the Islamists from posing an immediate threat to the shaky dominance of the nationalists; in his absence, all hell could break loose.
Of course, Arafat and the PA have an alternative to this bleak future: instead of waiting in vain for an American or international peace plan to rescue them, they could embark now on a process of political reform. Doing so would allow the nationalist movement to regain the support of most Palestinians while integrating its two central factions. For Arafat, the old guard, and the Palestinian community in general, the message would seem to be clear: reform or perish.