Five years after Arafat′s death, a Palestinian state remains elusive | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 10.11.2009
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Five years after Arafat's death, a Palestinian state remains elusive

Five years ago, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat died. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was hailed as one who could bolster Mideast peace prospects. But today, a Palestinian state alongside Israel is far out of reach.

Supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Supporters for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urging him to run again in January

Despite the endless rounds of shuttle diplomacy, top-level summits, and highly staged photo ops with bitter foes shaking hands and smiling, peace between Palestinians and Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state appears little more than a pipedream - a plan on paper with little connection to reality.

Five years ago this Wednesday, long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in Paris at the age of 75, after being confined for years to his compound in Ramallah by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for allegedly instigating suicide attacks in Israel, part of the so-called Second Intifada.

At the time, Israel said Arafat's death could signal a turning point for peace in the Middle East. But five years on, that does not appear to be the case.

"No, we're not any closer to peace and arguably, we're much further away," Robert Blecher, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Deutsche Welle.

Instead, Palestinians have split into two movements, Hamas and Fatah, who harbor a good deal of animosity toward one another. Israel now has a right-wing government, which has shown little interest in making concessions to the Palestinians at the negotiating table.

The United States under President Barack Obama, once seen as a beacon of hope after the years of relative inactivity of the Bush administration, has recently dropped its demands that Israel pull back its settlements in the West Bank, a major thorn in the side of Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat and his successor, Abbas

Yasser Arafat (l) and his successor, Abbas

While Arafat's militant past always made him a controversial figure and he was mistrusted by many at the various negotiating tables, he was able to act as an historic symbol which brought all Palestinians together in at least a nominal way, according to Blecher.

"But after he died there was no historic figure left that could unite the Palestinian flag," he said.

Abbas - once a new hope

Still, at the outset, many had put their hopes in Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005 and hailed by the Americans and Israelis not only for wearing suits instead of military fatigues, but for condemning Palestinian military actions against Israel as "terrorism" and calling the Second Intifada wrong.

Mahmoud Abbas

Abbas' announcement to not run for reelection could be tactical maneuvering, experts say

But under his watch, the Palestinian movement has fractured and his bitter rivals, Hamas, control the Gaza Strip, while he and his Fatah movement administer Palestinian affairs in the occupied West Bank.

While he has based his career on peace talks and believes there can be peace with Israel if the international community accepts a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, those hopes have recently been dealt a critical blow.

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to freeze West Bank settlements and in a turnaround by Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped that requirement on Israel and urged Abbas to begin negotiations anyway.

Stepping aside?

Some analysts says it was this sense of betrayal on various sides that led Abbas last week to announce he did not want to run for reelection in a vote scheduled for January.

"This shrinking US support indicates that President Abbas no longer sees a solution to the conflict and therefore wants to step down," Jochen Hippler of the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg, told Deutsche Welle. "But there will be a lot of pressure from Washington and others for him to remain a candidate."

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (l) and Abbas

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (l) and Abbas

That partly has to do with the fact that there are few people set to step into his shoes as leader of Fatah; Abbas has groomed no protege. The most talked-about figure is Marwan Barghouti, but he is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for murder and the Israelis have indicated they will not release him even if he were elected.

Other analysts and Palestinians in the West Bank, however, say that Abbas' decision not to run is a tactical move, despite his insistence to the contrary.

"He could use this as an opportunity to pressure the Americans and indirectly, Israel, because he needs to do something to shake up the diplomatic equation, because it's not playing to his favor," said Blecher of the International Crisis Group.

Anyway, he added, many people do not expect the elections to take place anyway. Abbas' Palestinian rivals, Hamas, say the vote would be illegal and that they would not take part.


What is next for the region is unclear to observers. Analyst Hippler describes it as a "civil war on ice" that will not move in any direction unless the United States stays involved and puts pressure on Israel to make concessions on the settlement issue. Only then, will Abbas return to the negotiating table.

Obama and Abbas

Success regarding Palestine depends on US involvement, analysts say

But even if he does, the question of Hamas and its role looms large. While Abbas might be an appealing figure to many in the West Bank and the Americans, he holds no sway over Hamas and the Gaza strip.

"There is simply no clear successor that a critical mass of people could coalesce around right now," Blecher said.

On the ground in Jerusalem, he said ordinary people there are just weary of the back and forth, the recriminations, the violence and a political process that locks them out.

"It's worse than people feeling despair. It's beyond that," he said.

Political scientist Hippler agreed, but warned that the paralysis could lead to a radicalization on both sides as people lose hope in a political solution, which seems as far away as ever.

"This can lead to young men saying 'we've tried it with negotiations, and that failed. We can't do it through military means, Israel is too strong. So the only way is to go down with dignity, and to bring some of our enemies with us'," he said.

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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