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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 19:11 GMT
Analysis: Uncertain future for the Palestinians
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The death of their symbol and saviour Yasser Arafat might finally force Palestinians to choose between negotiating with Israel for the best deal they can get or continue fighting for a dream they might never realise.

Former President Bill Clinton with Barak and Arafat in 2000
Mr Arafat withdrew from the Camp David talks saying what had been offered was not enough

It might also force Israel to make good on its claim that it was only Yasser Arafat who was blocking peace talks. Israel might now be forced to show that that was a reason not an excuse.

Mr Arafat tried both fighting and negotiating. For years he fought. He personified the Palestinian resistance. Then he talked.

The aim of regaining the whole of historic Palestine gave way to a pragmatic negotiation about regaining part of it.

In 1993 on the White House lawn, he shook hands with the man he came to call his friend, Yitzhak Rabin. In 2000 at Camp David, he negotiated with another former enemy and general, Ehud Barak.

Yet, in the end, Mr Arafat withdrew from the talks, saying that what Israel had offered was not enough. Nobody really knew what would have been enough for him.

He could have got a state and outlying parts of Jerusalem. But he would have had to give up part of the West Bank and, most painfully, the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees wanting to go back to their original homes.

Grim prospects

But as usual, the Palestinians, through him, turned down a worse offer than had been on the table years before and ended up with no expectation of a better offer in the future.

Indeed, the prospect is of something worse. Under present conditions they might get Gaza back but the prospects of having their own state are uncertain.

In the meantime, the Israelis are consolidating their hold over much of the West Bank. East Jerusalem is now for the Palestinians a distant hope, yet the talks over sovereignty there had been down to the last hundred metres, admittedly the most sensitive hundred metres in and around the Temple Mount as Jews know it or the Noble Sanctuary as it is called by Muslims.

A Palestinian woman in a refugee
There is a risk that the Palestinians could fall into the obscurity from which Mr Arafat lifted

Did Mr Arafat take a principled stand against a demeaning deal or did he fulfil the lofty scorn of the former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban who said that the Palestinians "never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity"?

A senior Western diplomat remarked recently: "What is happening is that the Israelis have won and are simply arranging the settlement as they want."

He might have added the words "settlements" as well, as Israeli communities are now well embedded on the West Bank.

Hence, a fearful future facing the Palestinians. If they do not lower their sights, they will get nothing and getting nothing will breed further resistance.

Risk

They might hope to do in the West Bank what they did in Gaza: make the place untenable for Israelis. That might well be the tactics of the extremists in Hamas who harbour ambitions to bring an end to the Jewish state.

But it is not certain that the Palestinians can make the West Bank untenable. The risk for them is that they will fail and will fall into the obscurity from which Mr Arafat lifted them in the first place.

It is true that an Israeli prime minister can no longer be as dismissive about the Palestinian people as Golda Meir once was. In an interview in 1969 she said of the Palestinians as a historic people:"They did not exist."

This quotation was later transposed into "They do not exist." That is different but her sentiment was not exactly sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations.

But the existence of a Palestinian people does not guarantee the establishment of a proper Palestinian state. World history is littered with peoples who are written out of the narrative.

The other risk is that the Palestinians will fight among themselves. One of Mr Arafat's weaknesses was that he did not like rivals. No clear succession was arranged.

It is possible that a new figure will emerge to make the choices and provide the leadership. But it is equally possible that divisions will prevail. There is always the threat from Hamas.

There could be another 40 years of conflict with nothing for the Palestinians to show for it.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The impact of Arafat's death on the peace process



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