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Death of Arafat leaves opportunity for peace

By Greg Gelpi and Ed Brock

Different people will have different reactions to the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but Roswell architect Mazen Issa will remember him for his dedication to the Palestinian people.

"I think it is the passing of a great man, a person who spent his life in pursuit of his cause," Issa said.

Arafat, revered as the champion of Palestinian statehood and reviled as a terrorist, died Wednesday night EST or Thursday morning Paris time, spreading spasms of grief among Palestinians and rekindling calls for new peace talks with Israel.

Arafat's death marked a turning point in modern Middle East history, leaving the Palestinians without a strong leader for the first time in four decades and arousing fears of a chaotic power struggle that could lead to fighting in the streets.

"It's very unstable," said 47-year-old Issa. "Nobody truly knows what will happen."

Born in Syria of Palestinian parents, Issa has lived in the United States for 25 years and is an U.S. citizen. He is a member of the Masjid Al-Ihsaan mosque in Riverdale.

While Arafat succeeded in some issues and failed in others, Issa said his devotion to his cause could not be doubted. And while the Palestinian people struggle for a new leader, Issa said Arafat's ideas would not be forgotten and the cause will not change.

"I suspect that the Palestinians are not going to shift their positions because Mr. Arafat died," Issa said. "I think it will solidify those positions."

Whether he'll be remembered as a freedom fighter or as a terrorist will depend on who writes the history books, said Michael Herb, an assistant professor of political science and Middle East affairs expert at Georgia State University.

In the meantime, Herb said Arafat's death marks an opportunity for Palestinians, Israelis and the American government.

"The main thing (his death) does is open the door to peace negotiations," he said.

When Arafat didn't capitalize on a peace deal offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, many Israelis grew disenchanted with him, giving up on any chance of negotiating with him, Herb said. On the other hand, many Israelis use Arafat as an excuse for not negotiating with the Palestinians.

A "potential drawback" is that Arafat's death leaves the future of the Palestinians unclear, he said. Arafat served in several positions in both the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization.

"You'll see a certain competition among Palestinians for authority and a fracturing of authority," Herb said, adding that he would be "somewhat surprised if things fell apart."

Although he wouldn't make any prediction on who would replace Arafat, he said Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are emerging.

It will be important for the U.S. administration to work with whomever takes Arafat's place, Herb said. America's dealings with Israel and Palestine weigh heavily on the Middle East's image of America.

The U.S. administration shouldn't require a new leader to "jump through hoops" to reach the negotiating table, he said.

Issa said he does hope talks between the Palestinian leadership and the United States will be renewed in the wake of Arafat's death, though several forces have intertwined in the U.S. to create a foreign policy that Issa does not like.

He was moved, however by the condolences President George Bush sent to the Palestinians.

"I see there has been a shift," Issa said.

President Bush described Arafat's death as a "significant moment" in Palestinian history and expressed hope the Palestinians would achieve statehood and peace with Israel.

"During the period of transition that is ahead, we urge all in the region and throughout the world to join in helping make progress toward these goals and toward the ultimate goal of peace," he said

Yasser Arafat's body was being flown back to the Mideast for funeral services after French and Palestinian officials honored him Thursday with a ceremony befitting a head of state. Arafat's widow, Suha, stifled sobs as the Palestinian flag-draped coffin of her 75-year-old husband was carried off a military helicopter to an official French aircraft. It then left for Cairo, Egypt, where funeral services will be held Friday.

The services will be held Friday at a military club in Cairo, followed by burial at his Ramallah compound on the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the death of his old nemesis could usher in a new era in the Middle East, but sets conditions for resuming peace talks.

The Israeli military said all West Bank Palestinians would be allowed to attend the funeral, though they would have to pass through checkpoints. Only VIPs will be permitted to come from Gaza, a military official said, adding that Israel had information that terror groups would use the funeral to plan an attack.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.