Recent predictions that the death of Yasser Arafat will usher in a new era of Palestinian peacemaking are, I regret to say, a joke.
And not just any joke. They recall the classic Redd Foxx monologue about the woman and her parrot. Abbreviated (and slightly bowdlerized), it goes like this:
"She woke up in the morning, got out of bed, turned on the light, uncovered the parrot, went to the kitchen, put on the coffee and the phone rang.
"A man's voice said, 'Hey, baby, I just got in from Chicago and I'm coming over right now.'
"So she took off the coffee, left the kitchen, returned to the bedroom, switched off the light, covered up the parrot and got back into bed. And the parrot said, 'Damn, that was a short day."'
After the death of Arafat, a reasonable Palestinian leadership, led by the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, seemed briefly to arise.
Abbas agreed to hold free and fair elections for Arafat's job. He promised to scoop up weapons from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He indicated willingness to negotiate a U.S.-backed peace deal for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.
Then Abbas went to Gaza to pay his condolences to Arafat's supporters and assert his own authority.
Gunmen there tried to assassinate him.
So Abbas fled Gaza. He went back to the West Bank and announced that he would follow in Arafat's footsteps. Specifically, he declared himself an unshakable champion of the Palestinian "right of return."
This is the same "right" that killed the Oslo peace process. It demands that Israel agree to absorb the millions of Arabs now living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and around the world who trace their ancestry to refugees of the 1948 War of Independence.
A great majority of mainstream Palestinians -- in the West Bank, Gaza and the Palestinian diaspora -- regard this "right" as matter of absolute justice and reject any possible peace deal that relinquishes it. This public sentiment, more than anything else, persuaded Arafat to walk away from the Bill Clinton-sponsored land-for-peace compromise of 2000.
For Israel, the Palestinian "right of return" means something different: annihilation. Millions of hostile Arabs (or even friendly ones) flooding in would quickly put an end to the world's only Jewish state. Today, most Israelis agree that the Palestinians can have a country next to Israel -- borders to be negotiated -- but not on top of it. Survival trumps everything else.
There can be no deal until the Palestinians come to grips with this simple fact. Abbas understands it (Arafat understood it, too), but he evidently isn't ready to die trying to explain it to his people.
Neither is his chief rival for power within the Fatah Party, Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti, a leader of the armed intifadeh, is in prison where he is serving five life sentences for murder. Since his victims were mostly Jews, this has not hurt his popularity among Palestinians -- or their Arab and European supporters.
Barghouti, of course, supports the "right of return." But unlike Abbas, he also is committed to continuing the terror war against Israel. Even though he evidently has decided not to run for office now, he will be a powerful force in any future Palestinian government. So will Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Elections are scheduled for Jan. 9. Perhaps Abbas will live long enough to reach them. But if he does, it will be as a weakened, frightened man, unable -- or unwilling -- to put down terror and deeply committed to the goal of dismantling Israel through demography.
So much for the new era of Palestinian peacemaking. Pardon my pessimism, but I'm pretty sure that on Jan. 10 the world will awake, look at the Palestinian election returns and say, in the immortal words of Redd Foxx's parrot, "Damn, that was a short day."
Zev Chafets is a columnist for the New York Daily News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.