"The ball is in the Palestinian court. The one who has to do something with it is the future Hamas government. And Abu Mazen, in this context, is not relevant." Thus stated Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last week. She's right.
Some people of good will in Israel, Palestine and the rest of the world want to make Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) "relevant" in the hope that this will render an Israeli-Palestinian peace process possible. They remind us that Israel's agreements with the Palestinians are with the PLO, not the PA, and that Hamas is not (yet) a part of the PLO. They note that Abu Mazen intends to strengthen the PLO vis-a-vis the PA. They point out that Hamas did not get a majority of Palestinian votes, merely a majority of Legislative Council mandates, hence Abu Mazen still represents the Palestinian majority. They note that most Palestinians, including many Hamas voters, continue to support immediate negotiations toward a two-state solution. "The Hamas victory cannot be allowed to obscure the reality," stated chief negotiator Saeb Erekat last week in the New York Times, "the Palestinian people want a negotiated peace, and in Mr. Abbas they have a Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman who shares their view, enjoys a mandate to act and has the ability to deliver."
But Abbas is not relevant to the current situation, and for now a peace process is not possible. Hamas is our "partner", for better or for worse.
Abu Mazen is a good person with noble sentiments. He opposes violence and appears genuinely to want a two-state solution. He remains president of the PA and head of the PLO. So far, so good. But he is incapable of acting decisively, and unable to deliver on his commitments. He promised to disarm the militias--those of Hamas, Fateh and Islamic Jihad--and could not. He wanted to clean out the ranks of Fateh and the PLO from the old guard of corrupt politicos, and failed.
Nor are his own ideological commitments necessarily congenial to a successful peace process with Israel. He agreed with Hamas in March 2005 in Cairo that the right of return would be exercised for all refugees to their former lands--a sure formula for the elimination of Israel. Earlier, at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001, he was part of a PLO team whose positions on the Temple Mount and the right of return helped doom the talks. In short, even if he had a mandate to negotiate and the capacity to do so, peace talks with him would likely fail. In the unlikely event that they succeeded, Abbas would not be able to deliver, because he does not have a mandate. Hamas does.
That Hamas won less than 50 percent of the total Palestinian vote on January 25 is immaterial: all over Europe ruling parties are elected with less than 50 percent; some American presidents received less than 50 percent of the vote. In Israel we're talking about Kadima leading the next government with less than a third of the vote. We argued energetically that prime ministers Rabin and Sharon had mandates to act even when their parties gained only a fraction of the vote and their coalitions were built on dubious foundations. Indeed, electoral systems like that which the Palestinians recently installed are designed to ensure stable single party rule, thereby ostensibly strengthening democracy. Israel can only look on with envy at the technical "success" of the Palestinian system--though obviously not at the political outcome, Hamas rule.
The majority of Palestinians may still favor a negotiated two-state solution, but they also continue to support suicide bombings. And if their sole reason for voting for Hamas was to kick out the corrupt Fateh establishment, they could have voted for squeaky-clean Palestinian secularists like Salam Fayad, who ended up with only two mandates. Hamas won its parliamentary majority fairly. Now it has to rule.
Abbas undoubtedly retains extensive powers as president and as head of the PLO. But he is also obliged, according to the Cairo agreement, to integrate Hamas into the PLO. If he doesn't, Hamas is liable to render the PLO "irrelevant". Moreover, precisely because he is a democrat and an honorable man, Abu Mazen will not now neutralize the Palestinian parliament but will honor the will of the Palestinian people. He and Hamas will find a formula that enables the latter to take office and the former to save face.
Palestinian moderates like Erekat are either in denial or genuinely don't understand that they have been replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, with all that entails for the future of Palestinian society and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israel undoubtedly shares the blame for Abbas' failure and Hamas' election triumph: we did not empower Abu Mazen sufficiently and did not carry out some of our roadmap obligations. But to blame mainly us for Hamas' victory, as many Palestinians do, is simply another form of Palestinian denial. Nor does it alter the outcome we must now deal with.
If, miraculously, Hamas changes and accepts the Quartet's conditions, Israel might encounter a viable negotiating partner for discussing an interim deal. That thesis is worth waiting a few months to test, if only to ensure our credibility for what comes next. More likely, we shall have to continue acting unilaterally. In this context, what is "relevant" for Israel is the necessity of ensuring its future as a Jewish and democratic state--by dismantling outlying settlements and completing the security fence as close as possible to the green line, including in Jerusalem.- Published 6/3/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A crucial role
by Ghassan Khatib
There are two ways to explain recent Israeli statements attacking President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, as irrelevant after Hamas' victory in January's parliamentary elections.
One is the atmosphere generated by the upcoming Israeli elections in which Israeli politicians seem to find it necessary to take extreme positions on all Palestinian-related issues. The second would appear to be an attempt to preempt any potential that Abu Mazen might rescue his people from their internal and international crisis.
Hamas' election victory and the Israeli/international response have created an impasse from which the two sides need a way out. Hamas, whose victory was overwhelming, is gradually realizing that it cannot fully realize that victory without a minimal level of cooperation with other forces internally and a minimal level of cooperation with the international community. The movement, however, does not know how to achieve this.
The international community, in turn, wants, is even obligated, to maintain the survival of the Palestinian Authority and prevent its possible collapse and the consequent chaos that would ensue. Members of the international community understand that they cannot ensure this without minimal cooperation with any Hamas government, but don't know how to enter into such cooperation.
Abu Mazen might be exactly the person to create the common ground that will ensure a vote of confidence by the Hamas-dominated Legislative Council for a specific Palestinian government and at the same time retain the necessary international support for such a government to survive.
The two sides, i.e., Hamas and Israel/the international community, need Abu Mazen. They thus need to grant him concessions so he can draw lines that are acceptable to both sides. These concessions have to be reasonable. Hamas cannot be asked to give concessions that would render its victory meaningless. Nor can Israel/the international community be expected to abrogate their interests in maintaining the PA, which in a sense can be considered an international project: it was established by international agreement, maintained by international aid and reformed after international pressure.
In this sense, Abu Mazen is acutely relevant to Palestinian society, to Israel and to the international community. Indeed, he, his position and approach, seem to be the only way out for everybody of the current impasse.
However, it is exactly this potential role that if given the chance, will maintain the necessary and vital cooperation between Palestinians and the international community, that appears to be targeted by the Israeli statements, which aim only to weaken and draw away attention from Abu Mazen.
Abu Mazen's comparative advantage is his unique local and international credibility and undoubted commitment to a political solution reached through negotiations rather than violent confrontations. In addition, he is the only Palestinian leader with the same or even greater legitimacy than Hamas, having being elected by the Palestinian public on a platform that is in stark contrast to that of Hamas'. It is Abu Mazen's platform that Palestinians and outsiders should seek to strengthen.- Published 6/3/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and acting minister of health, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Arrogance and paternalism
by Daniel Levy
Is the democratically-elected Palestinian president relevant? The instinctive response is to recoil from a question that is so indicative of the arrogance and paternalism that has ill-served Israeli policy and interests over the years. Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas), should he be in need of it, can draw comfort from joining a long list of regional leaders whose vitality has out-lived Israeli determinations of their having passed from relevancy. Perhaps one can put the unfortunate application of this term to President Abbas down to the inexperience and steep learning curve that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is currently immersed in. It would certainly not be unreasonable to turn the question on its head and ponder the relevance of most Israeli civilian-political leaders given the conspicuous, dominant (and largely unhelpful) role assumed by the military-security establishment.
And yet, the question is out there, so why not address it head-on. The critical role that Mahmoud Abbas played historically in bringing the Palestinian national movement to a position of mutual recognition and a two-state solution is well-documented. His ideological imprimatur can be found in the PNC Algiers Declaration and the dialogue with the US that followed, and in the Madrid and Oslo frameworks. He has been a framer and shaper, not a follower, in defining moments. It is only fair to remember that his election mandate as PA president was based on 62.3 percent of the vote, and that even in recent post-PLC polls he remains the most popular leader among Palestinians. In his dual role as PLO chair and PA president, Abu Mazen is the repository and source of authority of Oslo and all previously signed agreements.
From an Israeli perspective, one cannot make a credible international demand for the adherence to these agreements and at the same time deny the relevance of their standard-bearer. Now that Israel's leaders have rediscovered Oslo (ostensibly to use against Hamas) they might take the time to read it.
One could add to this that, given the power dynamics, the practical relevance of any Palestinian leader will always be in large measure a function of Israeli policy and willingness to work with that leader. With this one could close the case, but given the current chorus of voices insisting that Abbas has not been--and post-PLC elections cannot be--relevant, it is worth outlining four areas in which his influence has the potential to be decisive.
The first area will undoubtedly be treated with the most skepticism, namely, Abbas as a leader who can impact the day-to-day running of the PA territories. The powers vested in the office of the PA president are not insignificant. For that office to run an entire shadow government is neither realistic nor desirable, yet important functions of security and channeling of financial assistance can be assumed and this should not be ruled out. As the UNSCO Envoy Alvaro de Soto reported to the UN Security Council last week, "The Palestinian Authority is not something that can be turned on and off like a light switch." Maintenance of PA structures and capacities are an international and Israeli--as well as Palestinian Authority--interest, and the Abbas presidency could play a crucial role in preserving them under current circumstances.
Second, Abbas is the leader of Fateh and represents ideological opposition to Hamas within the Palestinian body politic. Anyone interested in Palestinian alternatives, as opposed to further embellishment of the self-fulfilling "no partner" motif or simply collapsing the PA and leaving a vacuum, has to take this seriously. The internal Palestinian political relevance of the Fateh leader in the current context and therefore, by extension, to the broader picture, should not be underestimated. The vitality of the leader of Fateh is about more than the future of the peace process. It is about the future of Palestinian democracy.
Third, Abu Mazen is an accepted Palestinian interlocutor vis-a-vis Israel, the US and the international community. Beyond the inherent desirability of dialogue, there are a range of practical and funding issues that will require an address and a predictability of outcome on the other side. The "fig leaf" role is sometimes very much needed--just ask Shimon Peres. Taking this a step further, if Israel and the Quartet were belatedly to wake up to the need for a political horizon and a political negotiated process, then Abu Mazen would become indispensable and would himself be greatly empowered by such a process. Any outcome could be put to a referendum, which in turn could present the most effective political challenge to Hamas.
Finally, the Abbas presidency could be a pivotal, constructive factor in testing the Hamas capacity for moderation. The theory of political participation and governance responsibility being a factor for greater moderation now needs to be put to practical and realistic tests. In this respect, the Abbas presidency could be used as a positive channel to a Hamas government in working to facilitate a tolerable outcome rather than as part of a sledgehammer policy against Hamas that is likely to boomerang.
For all the complaints, many justified, regarding the delivery record of the Palestinian president, more than enough blame for the current situation is shared by Israel and the Quartet. The Palestinian leader, just like the Israeli leader, can be part of the problem or part of the solution. But the first step in realizing a solution demands an end to the mindset whereby one side confers relevance or otherwise on the elected leaders of the other side.- Published 6/3/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Daniel Levy was an advisor in the Prime Minister's Office, a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A need for action
an interview with Mustafa Barghouti
bitterlemons: There have been a lot of suggestions in Israel, which took on added frequency after Hamas' election victory, that Mahmoud Abbas is no longer relevant to the peace process. What is your reaction?
Barghouti: Regardless of Hamas' victory, this would have been the Israeli position. For a whole year, Abu Mazen was the president, his party, Fateh, was in the government, and still Israel would not talk to him, claiming he was irrelevant because he could not eliminate Hamas.
In my opinion, the Israeli plan is very clear. It is to unilaterally impose Israel's own version of a de facto arrangement that would include the annexation of no less than 42 percent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the destruction of any possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and substituting for that plan an apartheid system.
In the process, to guarantee international tolerance of this plan, Sharon and now Olmert have consistently claimed that there is no Palestinian partner. First it was Arafat, then it was Abu Mazen, and now it's Hamas.
All in all, since 1996, Israel has been trying to destroy Oslo and destroy any possibility of a solution. What we see today is just a continuation of the same policy, which is basically to reject the whole idea of an independent Palestinian state and a two-state solution. So this talk about Abu Mazen being irrelevant is simply one element of an Israeli policy that does not seek negotiations or discussions on final status issues, but seeks to impose facts on the ground.
bitterlemons: So, in a way, what you are saying is that in fact Abu Mazen, indeed any Palestinian leader or faction, is irrelevant?
Barghouti: No, I don't agree. He may be irrelevant to Israeli plans, but he is still relevant to his people, who voted for him.
bitterlemons: But if Israel is intent on carrying out its plan as you state it, and is getting international support, then what can Abu Mazen or any leader do about it?
Barghouti: Israel is not getting international support. Israel might be getting American backing to some extent but not totally. I am sure Israel is not getting European backing. The response to what Israel is doing is to be proactive and not reactive. That means taking two immediate steps.
One is to take the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the wall to the United Nations and demand action. The second is to call for an international peace conference where all final status issues should be negotiated within the framework of international law and international resolutions. I would suggest that this is the only and best way for Abu Mazen, Hamas and other Palestinian forces to combine their efforts.
bitterlemons: And if Israel says no...?
Barghouti: They would. But then it will be the Israeli plan versus the Palestinian plan. The Israeli plan is to negate and deny international resolutions. The Palestinian plan would be a plan that is responsive to international law and international resolutions and is committed to making peace. This would put the Israelis in a difficult position and us in a much better strategic position. I think we would have strong backing from most countries in Europe and in the Arab world, and from that we can build up support for the Palestinian people.
We are in a struggle here. It is obvious that there will be no solution within a year. The struggle is about winning people's minds and their support, and it is the Palestinian narrative versus the Israeli narrative. At the moment, there is only the Israeli narrative and Palestinian responses. We need a Palestinian narrative to counter the Israeli government's narrative. This would also give the opportunity for the peace forces in Israel to get behind this narrative and show their support for a two-state solution.
bitterlemons: In this respect, Hamas would seem to have to make some kind of initial move?
Barghouti: Hamas, instead of just sitting there responding to what is being asked of it, would be better off to present its own initiative, a Palestinian initiative.
bitterlemons: Do you then see Abu Mazen as a kind of mediator between the international community and Hamas?
Barghouti: He could play that role, but I would like to see him as part of the Palestinian camp rather than just a mediator between two sides. He and others can definitely play an important role in building bridges with the international community, but I think a joint Palestinian plan to call for an international peace conference, putting clearly to the world the conditions for a just and lasting peace, should also produce a unified leadership. That would include Abu Mazen, the Hamas-led government and the independent forces in Palestine.
This combination could create sufficient power to counter the most serious and pressing threat to Palestinian aspirations, which is Israel's unilateral approach.- Published 6/3/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Mustafa Barghouti is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and head of the Independent Palestine party.
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