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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 November, 2004, 23:26 GMT
Can Arafat's death lead to peace?
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

A woman next to a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
One obstacle to peace is gone; many remain
Is there hope in the Middle East in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's death, or will the optimistic noises now being made fizzle out into the usual confrontation?

Certainly the swift announcement that Mr Arafat's successor will be elected on 9 January is a good start. But it is only a start.

Mr Arafat's death does not remove the last obstacle to negotiations with Israel. But it does remove one obstacle.

So much has to happen that the pessimists still probably have the advantage. Nobody has gone very wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years by predicting gloom and doom.

The Palestinians will have got some, though not much, comfort from US President George Bush in his news conference on the day they were burying their leader.

Little compromise

Mr Bush did restate his commitment to a Palestinian state and hoped it could come during his second term, but he avoided making any commitment to help such a state come about.

A Palestinian canters past the barrier Israel is building in Israel and the Occupied Territories
Another permanent barrier to peace?

The emphasis he laid on the need for democracy - which would include an end to violence against Israel and Israelis - indicates that the Palestinians have a long way to go before they get active US support for their own state.

There was no balancing emphasis on the Palestinian need for land. Yet land is at the heart of the dispute.

Nor did Mr Bush mention any responsibility by Israel to compromise on its position. With the spotlight on the Palestinians, the Israelis are currently enjoying less of the world's attention.

And neither President Bush nor his guest, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, mentioned that it was not democracy that brought Egypt and Jordan to make peace with Israel.

It was, in Egypt's case, the return of its land (the Sinai) and in Jordan's case, the abandonment of its claim to land (the West Bank).

Nobody is demanding that Syria become democratic before it makes peace with Israel.

Nevertheless, democracy is something the Palestinians want themselves.

But even assuming it develops, the greater issue beyond that is whether their new leadership will enforce a ceasefire and moderate their demands.

And beyond even that, will Israel be willing to go beyond the current disengagement plan to withdraw from Gaza and a mere four small settlements in the northern West Bank?

Way ahead

So what chance talks?

The first thing that will happen is that international effort will be put in hand to help the Palestinians with their election and with their institutions, among which one must number the security apparatus which is in need of reform.

Mr Blair hopes that a conference to encourage the Palestinians might be held following the election.

Such a conference is foreseen in the roadmap as part of the democratisation process so would not be an unexpected move. However, it is not agreed.

Then Israel must continue with its own disengagement plan, the name given to the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

Meantime that fence or wall or barrier will continue to be built. It is said to be a temporary structure. We shall see.

After all that, by the middle of next year, both sides might be ready to think about talks.

If not, and maybe in any case, a third way might prevail.

There would be separation between the two peoples by means of the barrier, the Palestinians might be able to declare an interim and rump state - which was in fact supposed to have happened by now under the peace plan known as the roadmap - and the level of violence would rise and fall depending on which Palestinian faction gained influence.

This would be presented as a temporary settlement. The trouble in the Middle East is that temporary settlements have a habit of becoming permanent.

See the chaotic scenes as Arafat's coffin arrives

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