I have a colleague who’s an excellent guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, almost uniquely qualified to explain it. I can’t reconstruct his crystal-clear summary of recent events, but I think I can accurately recollect a few key points:
1. Before Arafat died, there was some potential for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and selected parts of the West Bank. Sharon had decided to go that route, and he, perhaps alone of all Israeli politicians, had the stature to confront the settler movement and achieve some degree of withdrawal. After all, he was the architect of the settlements, so he could argue that some of them must be removed. Further, there was a consensus in Israel that Arafat was not a possible negotiating partner. Paradoxically, this made the left despair about fundamental negotiations and support modest Israeli withdrawals. In general, the Israeli people want negotiations, but not with Arafat. That desire created political momentum for an alternative strategy of unilateral separation. (Whether a withdrawal could possibly have led to a fair and sustainable outcome is another question.)
2) With Arafat dead, the Israeli right is now calling for negotiations with his successor, and playing on popular hopes that somehow the two sides will be able to reach an overall agreement. This stance will help them block Sharon’s strategy of unilateral withdrawal.
3) But Arafat was never as much of an obstacle as most Israelis have believed. His successor will inherit the same basic situation. Moreover, the Israeli right is calling for the Palestinian authority to wage a civil war to defeat Hamas, as a precondition for sitting down with Israeli negotiators who are not pre-committed to any particular position. This is an utterly unrealistic expectation.
4) So there is little ground for hope, and the death of Arafat has probably made things worse (although hardly anyone mourns him as a human being). The best path is probably still for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, in which case it is conceivable that the Palestinian authority and Hamas will work out a modus vivendi to govern the area, will converge ideologically, and will be able to negotiate together with Israel. The likelihood of that outcome strikes me as very low. But every other scenario I can imagine seems worse.