The critical illness of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was reported near death as this page went to press, is a pivotal event that could quickly lead to increased turmoil in the ever-troubled Middle East, but could offer hope for a long-term solution that might allow Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace.
As the impassioned rhetoric and intrigues swirling around Arafat's Paris hospital bed demonstrate, the coming days will test the world's fragile hopes for such a peace. It will require a cool, steadying influence from top world players - particularly the United States - to make a transition to the post-Arafat era.
On Friday, even as a spokeswoman said Arafat hovered "between life and death," his followers began jockeying for position to succeed him - and signs of public unrest among Palestinian factions began to surface.
That is ominous, because despite widespread complaints about corruption and incompetence in Arafat's administration and his inability - or unwillingness - to advance the peace process, he is a beloved figure who has personified the Palestinian nation. He will be mourned with passion, anger and perhaps violence. It didn't help that some Israelis prematurely "celebrated" Arafat's demise Thursday.
A transition likely will be headed by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Arafat PLO lieutenant Mahmoud Abbas, neither of who have much of a following among the Palestinian people. The leadership must immediately deal with some thorny problems, including where Arafat would be buried. A cleric's claim that Arafat had expressed a wish to be interred near Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque has been disputed, and Israeli officials said they would not allow him a Jerusalem burial.
But a new leadership could be far more receptive to a renewal of serious peace talks, according to many observers. A younger generation of Palestinian leaders also has been pushing for internal reforms that have been stymied by the Arafat regime. Progress in that direction could provide a more hopeful outlook for the Palestinian people.
How America reacts to the transition will be key. President Clinton made Arafat a frequent guest at the White House; that didn't help the peace process. President Bush refused to talk to Arafat; that didn't work either.
In an off-the-cuff response Thursday to a false report that Arafat had already died, President Bush managed to strike the proper notes of respect and resolve. "My first reaction is God bless his soul," Bush said. "My second reaction is that we will continue to work for a free Palestinian state that's at peace with Israel."
His administration must quickly back that resolve with skillful, persistent diplomacy. The emergence of new Palestinian leadership will allow Bush to finesse his snub of Arafat and start fresh.
The Israeli army reportedly has given the name "New Leaf" to its contingency plan for dealing with reactions to Arafat's death. Let us all hope the name is prescient, and that this blood-soaked region indeed can turn over a new leaf.
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