Most nations have heroes who occupy a central place in their national narrative. Heroes are made, and remade, especially after their death. Arafat was already well on his way to becoming a Palestinian icon during his life. These processes will be completed soon after his death.
Yet what he ultimately stood for will be contested. His legacy will be claimed by different groups and parties, including those who opposed him politically at some point or another, and by various factions within his own party, Fateh. Arafat will continue to play a political role after his death.
For in spite of his long career, his death clearly portrays an unfinished journey: he died in Paris; official ceremonies were held in Cairo and not in Palestine, and he was buried "temporarily" in Ramallah. Any final peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis will have to allow for an appropriate final resting place for Arafat in Jerusalem.
It is also clear that Palestinians will be entering a new phase in their political life. Two broad issues will dominate in the near and longer term: the fate of the political process with Israel, and the nature of the Palestinian political system in the post-Arafat era.
Initial assessments made soon after Arafat’s death about possibilities now open for progress in negotiations with Israel have a short-term focus but no strategic significance. For even if one were to suppose that another interim arrangement is made between the new Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government, the seeds of conflict will remain, all the more so because of the separation wall that will become a focus for continued protest and resistance.
The new Palestinian leadership may have some political leeway in the immediate future to continue steps started by the intercession of Egypt, especially if there is a higher degree of American and European involvement. Ultimately, however, gradual political restraints will be placed on the new leadership due to the increased political influence of varied contenders for power who will assume a more prominent role after the death of Arafat. In his lifetime, he could not be challenged on power sharing by other groups. The new Palestinian leadership will be in a far weaker position in the face of such demands and ultimately may have to accede to them, at least partially.
But the main longer-term constraint and challenge for any new Palestinian leadership is whether it may possibly have an Israeli partner in any future government of Israel. There is no reason to believe that such a leadership will be able to "sell" to Palestinians what an Israeli government is likely to offer. The internal Israeli political scene will remain deadlocked on the issue of where to draw the line territorially for the end of the Zionist project in historic Palestine unless there is consistent outside pressure that could influence Israeli public opinion in a leftist direction. This does not appear likely under the Bush administration. Any interim arrangement will therefore keep the seeds of conflict smoldering.
The nature of the political and administrative system of the Palestinian Authority after Arafat is the second main challenge where changes are to be expected. As most Palestinians agree, no one person will be able to replace Arafat. In addition, he created under the PA a de-institutionalized mode of government where the informal system predominated over the formal system. His system of patronage and clientism tied ultimately to himself resulted in his being the glue that bound the system. His departure may well result in the fragmentation of his own party, Fateh, and various centers of power in the PA as well.
The new leadership is very keenly aware of this, but it remains to be seen how successful it will be in holding things together in the coming weeks and months. Centralizing the various security services under one command will not by itself be enough. This is an Israeli requirement but is not the only element of reform required from a Palestinian point of view. Without rule of law and a reformed court system, there is a danger that Palestinians will be governed by security organizations. In terms of priority, rule of law comes first.
Beyond a short transition period, the issue of the legitimacy of the government will come up. The demand for elections has already been raised in the past year and more persistently than at any time before. If elections for a new representative council are not held soon, the legitimacy of the government will be undermined and wide rifts in society will open. The new leadership will be too weak to stem what will be a swelling tide. This will also be a political decision that Israel and the US will have to take, i.e., whether to facilitate elections or not.
Ultimately, issues related to reform and democratization in the Palestinian context will not be separate from issues related to national rights. No Palestinian leadership will be able to govern democratically if it is perceived by Palestinians to be making undue concessions on such rights. This will also be seen as the heritage of Arafat who died while under siege in Ramallah. His burial site will remain a potent, visible, and concrete reminder.