JERUSALEM – Former U.S. envoys say that the passing of Yasser Arafat (search) would open up new opportunities for Mideast peace, especially if new, pragmatic Palestinian leaders emerge.
But they say a breakthrough largely depends on a change of course by two other men: Ariel Sharon (search) and George W. Bush.
In interviews, the diplomats — key players in Mideast peacemaking for decades — said Bush's re-election and Arafat's grave illness will likely represent a turning point in peace efforts.
But intense power struggles could plague post-Arafat Palestinian politics, they warned. And even if moderates win out, neither Bush nor Sharon have a good track record on seizing opportunities for peace.
"It still takes two to tango. And are the Israelis ready? That question is unanswered," said Richard Murphy (search), Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs between 1983 and 1989.
"And I'm not sure if Bush is ready to inject the prestige of the White House as Clinton did and as Clinton failed in the end."
Four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed have all but doomed Bush's Mideast peacemaking ambitions, rallying Arab public opinion as never before and becoming a recruiting call to jihadists throughout the world.
Both Sharon and Bush, who for years have shunned Arafat as an unacceptable negotiating partner, will lose their main excuse for not talking to the Palestinians if Arafat, who is hospitalized outside Paris with an undisclosed ailment, dies.
Late Saturday, Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the Palestinian leader was not in a coma as earlier reported but remained in intensive care after undergoing more medical tests. Rdeneh would not say whether his announcement meant Arafat had emerged from a coma or whether he had not been comatose at all.
That could open prospects for talks, but Arafat's refusal to groom a successor has left Palestinians with a leadership crisis, with hard-line groups such as Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad eager to fill a power vacuum.
"I don't think you're going to get a credible partner for peace until the Palestinians come to grips with the question of Hamas and the rejectionists," said Edward S. Walker, another former Mideast envoy and ambassador to both Israel and Egypt.
Even if moderates prevail, they may lack the confidence and legitimacy necessary to make the compromises that any peace deal would entail. And if they're seen as being too cozy with Israel, they could be branded as collaborators.
Dennis Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, wrote in a Washington Post editorial last week that Hamas and Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement are likely to reach an agreement "to preserve stability" during an interim period.
"The problem with any such arrangement is that it would mask the leadership vacuum and not resolve it," he wrote.
He predicted that Hamas wouldn't accept any decision mandating an end to violence unless "the decision came from a leadership that was elected."
Aaron David Miller, also a former U.S. Mideast negotiator, said he expects a bitter behind-the-scenes power struggle between Arafat's old guard, who spent time with him in exile, and a younger generation of leaders who grew up in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Two old guard stalwarts — former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, and current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, known as Abu Ala — are managing Palestinian affairs in Arafat's absence and are leading contenders to replace him.
"Abu Mazen and Abu Ala need to have some early successes if they're going to prevail," said Walker, who now heads the think tank Middle East Institute.
Both Walker and Murphy questioned Bush's commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but expressed hope he'll do better in his second term.
Bush "said the right things" in a post-election news conference, Walker said, "but I didn't see any passion behind what he said and have never seen any real commitment to do anything."
Added Murphy: "He (Bush) really didn't in those first four years at least invest any great energy."
As for Sharon, he's pushing through a historic plan to unilaterally "disengage" from the Palestinians by pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year.
So far he's doing it without consulting the Palestinians, and several former negotiators predicted that will change if Arafat departs the scene.
"Simply pulling out, shooting as they go, isn't a recipe for stability," explained Murphy.
Walker added, "Certainly a vast majority of the Israeli people are going to want to see this opportunity exploited."