Thursday, November 11, 2004

Arafat dies

Yasser Arafat has died in Paris. The Rashomon symbol of the Middle East — for some electrifying statesman, for others unrepentant terrorist — passes from the scene with almost perversely perfect timing. With his departure, from more or less natural causes, the equation for action among the purportedly major players shifts in a big way. It’s put up or shut up time. Tony Blair said as much to George Bush in their whirlwind summit at the White House. This was a time, maybe the best time, to re-engage with the long-derailed road-map plan. It will require something the Bush administration has been loathe to do — put the Middle East on the front-burner of pending initiatives.

The feet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are similarly in the fire. For Sharon, Arafat was the one inescapable roadblock to peace efforts in the region. For Ariel Sharon, it was personal, or as close to personal as you can get. Now, with Arafat gone, the most obvious, and in some ways most convenient justification for diplomatic intransigence has vanished. This may prove to be a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Sharon; a door may soon open, beckoning him to have the courage to step through — in much the same way Arafat was summoned, unsuccessfully, to make history at Camp David in 2000.

Much depends now on the new Palestinian leadership, and how readily the predictable chaos will play itself out. Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia are the point men for the new Palestinian power structure, but the jockeying among others has no doubt begun. Whoever is chosen, though, the burden of proof is on the established powers in the region: Israel and the United States. Those two forces can effect the incentives and wield the authority necessary, in equal measure, to underscore their faith in the peace-making process and undercut the symbolic aspect of terrorism’s persuasive powers.

Nature abhors a vacuum, the axiom goes. Nowhere is that more true than in the fractious Middle East. Whether the vacuum that occurred today persists or is transformed into hope, or something approaching hope, for the Palestinian people depends on how aggressively the two power brokers in the region busy themselves with resolving the urgency of the situation.

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