Sharon orders ministers not to comment on Arafat succession

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon has ordered Israeli officials and ministers to refrain from commenting on the political, security and diplomatic implications of the death of Yasser Arafat, at least until the government issues a carefully drafted official response.

The Israeli Prime Minister's ban is intended to avoid charges of interference in what Mr Sharon has told ministers is an internal issue for the Palestinians, and to avoid inflaming what he recognises will be the far-reaching implications for the future of the Middle East.

Even if honoured more in the breach than in the observance the move may also be designed to ensure that attempts by over-talkative politicians to influence Mr Arafat's succession do not badly backfire on Israeli interests. It also underlines how far Mr Arafat's death, when it comes, will affect the peace process, and that that depends not only on the reaction of Palestinians but also of Israel.

At one level, Mr Arafat's demise would be something Mr Sharon has hardly bargained for. The reason that the central element of his strategy in relation to the conflict, withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, has been unilateral and without agreement - even, so far, on the technical details - is precisely because of his argument that he has, so long as Mr Arafat remained the fully functioning President, no "partner" for negotiations. It is why, too, for all the lip-service he continues to pay to the internationally agreed "road-map", he has sidelined it in practice.

Indeed, the impossibility, as much of the Israeli public as well as its government see it, of dealing with Mr Arafat, was what lay behind a brutally candid remark by Mr Sharon's close aide, Dov Weisglass.

He said that disengagement from Gaza was the "formaldehyde" in which the peace process could be frozen for the indefinite future.

The biggest question for the Middle East, if Mr Arafat dies, is whether Mr Sharon will still have as good a reason to ignore the international - and quite possibly increasing domestic - pressure in the wake of the US election to return in time to the negotiating table.

A good deal, of course, depends on the highly vexed question of the succession to Mr Arafat, and whether a figure hostile enough to Israel to be credible among Palestinians, but statesmanlike enough to open the way to negotiations, can be found.

One big danger is that Fatah, the movement at the core of Mr Arafat's apparatus, will fragment in possibly bloody in-fighting, rivalry and score-settling. Even if it doesn't, it is also possible that, as the Israeli analyst and Arafat biographer Barry Rubin has suggested, there will be no clear successor of any kind, at least in the short to medium term.

A strong possibility is that the internationally almost unknown figure of Rawhi Fattouh, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, will be named as a temporary, figurehead president while Abu Mazen, the former prime minister, will assume de facto responsibility for political leadership and Ahmad Qureia, his under-performing successor, for administration.

But then what? The Palestinian Authority's basic law requires the Speaker to call elections for the presidency in 60 days. On the one hand there will be fears well beyond Israel that elections could produce the "wrong result" with - say - Hamas strengthening its influence. On the other there is a powerful case for such elections.

Whatever the complaints about the rampant corruption which Mr Arafat presided over and his inability or refusal to stop the violence of armed militants, he was the one figure who could command the respect of PLO factions, and perhaps the one figure who could have delivered a settlement - even if, as the Israelis claim, he was incapable of reaching one in the first place.

For a successor, to be elected would not be a sufficient condition of his enjoying the same authority, much less of having the power to bring an end to the violence which Mr Sharon has so far insisted is a precondition of peace talks. But it might be a necessary one.

Even here, however, the Israelis have an important role. If elections took place the Israelis could do much to make them easier; to cite a single example, by allowing freer passage across the land than the present massively restrictive system of checkpoints and blocked roads across and between the West Bank and Gaza allows.

Whether there are elections or not, it would be fatal for Israel to promote its own candidate, thus not only bringing charges of interference but virtually ensuring the defeat of their man in anything like free elections.

On the other hand, once a successor was chosen, whether by anointment or election, the Israelis would face a different kind of choice.

More doveish Israeli officials admit with some regret they could have done more to help Abu Mazen during his brief and unhappy premiership, by making more concessions - such as a large-scale release of prisoners - that he could have claimed as victories and which could have bolstered his own popularity. If Abu Mazen were to prove the most credible potential successor to Mr Arafat at least in the medium term, the Israelis would have to do more to help him than they were doing when he resigned last September.

All this can hardly fail to test Israel's - as well as the Palestinians' - commitment to a long-term settlement.

Already papers are circulating in the historically more doveish Foreign Ministry about the possibilities for negotiations that could be presented in a post-Arafat era.

There are many threats posed by the death of the figure who has symbolised the Palestinians' struggle for statehood over 30 years or more.

But there could also be opportunities. Some eminent Israeli commentators have begun to warn the establishment not to miss a potentially historic moment for trying to solve the world's most intractable conflict.