Israeli officials are quietly confident that if Yasser Arafat's health forces him to leave office, new chances for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation will open up.
But they are aware of a number of pitfalls. The most serious danger is that any successor to Arafat might not have the necessary credibility to deliver on any peace commitments; and that the international community, liberated from the argument that Arafat is not a true peace partner, might pressure Israel to make concessions even without the Palestinians providing anything in return.
For now, Palestinian Authority officials say Arafat remains in control, and the true extent of his disability is unclear.
And in the immediate term, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not contemplating any major policy changes. There is no question of retracting or postponing the planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank just because there may now be a Palestinian partner.
Sharon says he is prepared to coordinate the withdrawal with a more moderate Palestinian leadership, as long as there is no delay in the timetable for implementation.
Sharon told the Cabinet on Sunday that if a new Palestinian leadership moved against terrorism, there would be a good chance of renewing negotiations based on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan -- but these leaders would have to act, not just talk.
Since coming to power nearly four years ago, Sharon has argued that Arafat is the major obstacle to peace. Since January 2002, when Arafat was implicated in an attempt to smuggle a huge shipment of arms into the Palestinian territories from Iran, the United States has thought along similar lines.
In a major policy statement later in 2002, President Bush urged the Palestinians to choose new leaders not "compromised by terror."
Israel and the United States developed policies designed to circumvent Arafat in the hope that other Palestinian leaders would be able to stop the violence and engage in a political process with Israel. But though confined to his headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat continued to pull the strings, preventing two prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, from developing serious peace policies.
Now Israeli officials hope that if Arafat's illness finally breaks his hold on power, men like Abbas and Qurei may be able to emerge from his shadow and take the peace process forward. If Arafat dies, or is rendered incapable of continuing in office, Israeli military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash told the government, the four-year-old Palestinian intifada could come to an end.
With Arafat receiving treatment in France, Abbas seems likely to emerge as the most prominent figure in a new collective leadership. He long has called for an end to the armed uprising against Israel, which he calls "a strategic mistake."
As prime minister from March to September 2003, Abbas tried to negotiate a cease-fire and take the road map forward, but he constantly was undermined by Arafat, and ultimately resigned. If Abbas again comes to the fore, he likely would try to take the road map forward with European and U.S. help.
But it's not clear how far Abbas would be able to go toward a final peace deal with Israel. He is as fiercely opposed as was Arafat to waiving the demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, a position that not even the most dovish Israeli government would accept.
And even if Abbas were ready to make concessions on this and other key issues, it's unlikely he would have the authority to carry them through.
"Abu Mazen will not be able to make the tough concessions that Arafat, with all his prestige and authority, couldn't," said Israel's former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, using Abbas' nom de guerre.
The Foreign Ministry recognizes the problem a successor will have in establishing anything approaching Arafat's authority. Top officials have drawn up a paper suggesting how Israel could help, without giving the impression that it is interfering in Palestinian affairs.
In general, they suggest that Israel reduce the level of its anti-terrorist activities by refraining, for example, from targeted killings of terrorists, except those on their way to launching an attack.
There even is talk of Israeli readiness to release Palestinian prisoners if Palestinian terrorism falls for a sustained period.
But it won't be easy. Arafat was able to keep the lid on deep rifts in Palestinian society, and some Israeli experts expect a prolonged power struggle if Arafat's restraining influence evaporates.
Shaul Mishal of Tel Aviv University foresees clashes between the older generation of PLO officials from Tunis, like Abbas and Qurei, and the younger generation of men who grew up under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, like Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti.
Potentially even more divisive, he said, is the hostility between the secular Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas movement. David Hacham, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's adviser on Palestinian affairs, believes these divisions could result in a collective leadership that embraces young and old, secular and religious forces. The question is, What kind of policy vis-?-vis Israel would this leadership be likely to adopt?
In any event, Israeli officials don't expect any overnight change for the better in Palestinian attitudes even if Arafat goes. The cultivation of hatred for Israel -- which intensified during the intifada -- is such that no Palestinian leader will be able to make a fundamental shift immediately.
Still, Israeli officials do anticipate two significant policy changes: Palestinian readiness to coordinate with Israel to take responsibility for Gaza and the northern West Bank and to relaunch peace negotiations based on the road map after the Israeli withdrawal from those areas is completed next summer.
But there is a downside: Should Arafat's illness prove serious enough to sideline him, the new American administration will inherit a situation in which the main reason for ignoring the Palestinian leadership will have been removed.
Israeli officials believe that could lead to American readiness to embrace a European initiative for Israeli-Palestinian re-engagement, without the Palestinians being required to meet their basic road map commitments such as dismantling terrorist groups.
The Europeans make no secret of the fact that they intend to launch a new initiative immediately after the American elections. The Israeli fear is that, with Arafat out of the picture, the Europeans might overlook ongoing Palestinian terrorism -- and that the new American administration may be inclined to follow suit, putting pressure on Israel to negotiate under fire.
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