An era is coming to an end in the Middle East. Yasser Arafat has defined the Palestinian movement since the 1960s. Like it or not, he has for many years been an icon for Palestinians. In their eyes, he was the one who succeeded in putting the Palestinian cause on the global stage and in ensuring that Palestinian national aspirations could not be ignored. He was the one who resisted Arab leaders' attempts to manipulate the Palestinians for their own ends. He was the one who defied those, such as the United States and Israel, who, Palestinians believe, humiliate them and deny them their rights. And he was the one who created at least a semblance of unity among a people perpetually divided by clan, tribe, region and ideology.
It matters little how much of the Arafat legacy is myth and how much is reality. In truth, Arafat always succeeded far more as a symbol than as a leader. As a symbol, he had only to excite passions; as a leader, he had to make hard decisions and choices, and in that he was far more a decision avoider than a decision maker. It is the symbol of Arafat that will be missed. For most Palestinians he was the living representation of their movement. And soon he may be only a memory.
Even his strongest Palestinian critics, who believe that Arafat has provided Palestinians a past and not a future, know that there will be a void without him. Emotionally, a father figure for the movement will be gone. Practically, he was the lone figure of authority, and even if he chose to do little to prevent chaos and anarchy in the West Bank and Gaza, he was the one person who could have done something about it.
It is the absence of a figure of authority that invites a power vacuum and is almost certain to trigger a struggle for power in Arafat's aftermath. But because Palestinians fear a violent struggle, there will be an internal dialogue among different factions within Arafat's organization -- Fatah -- and between Fatah and groups such as Hamas. And in all likelihood, there will be an agreement to preserve stability and avoid conflict, at least for an interim period. Perhaps there will be a collective leadership.
The problem with any such arrangement is that it would mask the leadership vacuum and not resolve it. It would provide no legitimacy for making difficult decisions. Would such a leadership -- one based on private understandings -- be able to manage Palestinian responsibilities as Israel withdraws from Gaza? Could it mandate a real cease-fire so that the Israeli withdrawal could be carried out in an atmosphere of calm, not of violence? Would Hamas go along, given its desire to foster the impression that it forced the Israelis to withdraw?
In fact, while Hamas might not want to go along with any decision that mandated an end to violence, it could well do so if the decision came from a leadership that was elected. Elections would invest a new leadership with legitimacy. Indeed, the only way a successor to Arafat is likely to gain legitimacy and authority is through a popular vote. A succession managed through private dialogue between different factions may be necessary to preserve stability for a transitional period and make it possible to hold elections. But unless the Palestinian public feels it has had a say in who emerges after Arafat, no leader is likely to feel secure or legitimate.
Palestinian reformers have been emphasizing the need for elections for some time. They have pushed them in Fatah as a way of challenging Arafat's and the old guard's way of doing business. Though Arafat initially opposed such elections, he eventually realized he could not stop them, and they were held in Gaza. Similarly, reformers pushed for elections in the municipalities. Again, Arafat was not enthusiastic, but the reformers in the cabinet insisted, and received the backing of the Legislative Council. Municipal elections will be held beginning next month. Clearly reformers have looked at the elections as a way to create authority independent of Arafat. But the desire for voting goes well beyond them. The Palestinian public wants elections. Even though conditions make it very difficult to reach regional registration centers, 67 percent of Palestinians eligible to vote have registered.
There is one other virtue in holding elections: It would provide a good basis for Israelis and Palestinians to resume a dialogue. Those responsible for planning and holding the elections should be talking with the Israeli military, given the military's presence and operations in the territories. Coordinating on where the Israeli forces will be, and on what they and the Palestinians will do and not do, is vitally necessary if elections are to be held. Should the United States also begin to coordinate between Israelis and Palestinians in advance of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, such a dialogue could restore a basis for ending the daily conflict and resuming a political process.
Engaging Palestinians as they begin to focus on how they will govern themselves after Arafat may be important not only for Palestinian stability but for defusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The writer was director for policy planning in the State Department under President George H.W. Bush and special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton. He is counselor of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace."