Today marks yet another meeting between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and yet another speech on the Palestinian issue by President George W. Bush. All this activity should not deceive us into assuming that it's business-as-usual between Israelis and Palestinians under Abbas' rule.
On the contrary, a number of recent events and developments in Palestine and the region require that we take a new and somewhat different look at the prospects for working effectively with Abbas. Most of these events and developments are negative: the recent Hamas takeover of Gaza and the rise of militant Islam in general, the Iranian drive for regional hegemony, the weakness and fragmentation exhibited by a growing number of Arab states and the horribly counter-productive American occupation of Iraq and democratization campaign. Israel's actions, too, are part of the negative picture: it has difficulty combating the Islamist non-state aggressors operating on its borders, seemingly cannot stop the deadly spread of settlements and is undergoing a prolonged leadership crisis.
Only one development is positive: the Arab peace initiative. Yet here too the Arab League and its leading states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, appear thus far to be incapable of following through on a good idea.
Mahmoud Abbas is very much a creature of these times and trends. He is a weak leader ruling over a fragmented political entity. He confronts a militant Islamist movement whose recent triumph in Gaza reflects an Iranian achievement, broader mistakes by Arab states and an overall Palestinian failure at state-building since the emergence of the Oslo process.
If this analysis suggests any prospect at all for a positive new departure in Israeli-Palestinian relations during the Abbas era, it is the recognition that because the malaise is regional, so too must the solution be regional. If Mahmoud Abbas is yet to play a positive role in advancing an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, this can only be through a greater readiness on the part of the neighboring Arab states to themselves play a more active role in their own self-interest.
For starters, the neighbors must help Abbas reform the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's designated Palestinian negotiating partner. Lest we forget, the Arab League created the PLO. Now that Palestinian body is hopelessly corrupt, manipulated by "dinosaurs" appointed decades ago by Yasser Arafat and out of touch with the Palestinian masses. Abbas, who is basing his leadership strategy on the PLO now that the Palestinian Authority is virtually defunct, seems sadly incapable of changing very much on his own.
Second, it's time the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians weighed in on the heavy negotiating issues--Jerusalem and refugees. They backed away from taking a stand on them in July 2000 when Arafat needed their support. Now that it is clearly beyond Abbas' capacity to make the concessions required to inspire Israeli public confidence in a final status deal, the Arab neighbors have another opportunity.
There is a clear pan-Arab and, in the case of Jerusalem, pan-Islamic dimension to both issues. The Arab peace initiative provides cover for a broader Arab role in which Arab states commit to help absorb refugees and foster a Muslim-Jewish compromise agreement on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This means, to begin with, that the Arab League delegation has to stop postponing its visit to Israel to open negotiations on the Arab peace initiative and that the Saudis have to join the direct negotiating effort to make the initiative a genuine instrument for advancing Israeli-Palestinian (and Israeli-Syrian) peace.
Third, the Arab states and particularly Jordan and Egypt must exploit the Arab peace initiative's proposed umbrella of regional security arrangements to play a more direct role in providing security in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. Here again they would be compensating for Abbas' weaknesses and providing incentives for Israeli concessions while improving overall regional stability for their own benefit.
Finally, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been active in trying to reconcile between Fateh and Hamas, Abbas and Khalid Meshaal. Their efforts thus far have been abortive, to the detriment of Abbas' overall prestige and authority. If they have concluded that Abbas is a spent force and is incapable of rallying Fateh and its allies behind him, they should say so and suggest alternative modes for stabilizing Palestinian rule. If not, they should provide him with better political support in his confrontation with Hamas.
Abbas is not likely to remain president of the PA and head of the PLO beyond the end of his presidential term in another year and a half. This period could be critical in determining whether the PLO remains a potential peace partner for Israel, at least in the West Bank, or is subverted by Hamas.
Abbas is a weak but well-intentioned leader for whom there is no obvious successor or replacement (although Israel could contribute here by releasing Marwan Barghouti). With the active backing and involvement of Israel's Arab neighbors and a forthcoming Israeli approach--we can't expect much from the United States during the next 18 months--his legacy could conceivably be the initiation of a modest conflict-management process that ushers in another attempt at peace negotiations, keeps Hamas at bay and inaugurates a new and more realistic generation of Palestinian leadership.
That is a best-case scenario. Otherwise--if we leave matters to Abbas alone, if Israel doesn't resume rolling back the settlements and outposts or if the Arabs once again fail the Palestinian cause--he will almost certainly usher in even greater chaos and more Islamist rule.- Published 16/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
President Mahmoud Abbas represents the peace camp in Palestine. This camp believes in a negotiated approach to finding a solution with Israel that can secure an end to the occupation that started in 1967 and that will allow for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and a resolution to the refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
After the death of the late President Yasser Arafat--who was accused of taking a hard line at the Camp David summit in 2000 and of encouraging violence in his last years--Abbas was elected on the basis of this well-understood position and by a vast majority in the Palestinian occupied territory. In other words, the Palestinian public voted for the peace camp.
But "luck" was not on Abu Mazen's side. He was elected at a time when the political reality in both Israel and the US was not conducive to peacemaking. Indeed, the lackluster Israeli and American response to Abu Mazen's election victory convinced the Palestinian public that the peaceful approach had no future.
That, combined with the relentless economic deterioration in the occupied territories that was a direct result of draconian Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people, led to a trend of radicalization in public opinion, culminating in the victory of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Consequently, Palestinians are now questioning the future of the peace camp and thus the very Palestinian cause. The failure of the peaceful approach to reach a two-state solution will only lead to a never-ending cycle of violence.
Hamas' victory in the parliamentary elections and its subsequent military victory over Fateh in Gaza shocked the international community. Thus questions are now being asked about how to rescue the situation and stop the deterioration. The most commonly asked question in this respect is how to support Abu Mazen and who should lead this charge.
Paradoxically, it is the very same parties who did so much to undermine Abbas that are now scrambling to support him, namely the international community, particularly the US, and Israel. But to do so is to understand that it was Israeli policies that were directly responsible for weakening Abu Mazen in the first place, particularly in that crucial year after Arafat's death and Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections.
Israel weakened Abbas intentionally. Abbas' firm stand in favor of negotiations posed an unanswerable challenge to an Israeli polity that has no intention of loosening its grip on its illegal settlements in the West Bank and thus no intention of ending its belligerent occupation of the Palestinian people and their land. This continues today. The Palestinian public is not fooled by Israeli statements in support of Abbas as long as Israeli actions on the ground do exactly the opposite and continue to slice up Palestinian land, isolating Palestinians into ghettos that endure economic hardships and threaten humanitarian disaster.
There are only two factors that can now ensure Abbas' political survival. One is internal and one external. Internally, Abbas needs to end the harm done by certain elements within his Fateh faction, particularly the armed elements, who have acted only in narrow power interests rather than in the interests of the Palestinian people as a whole.
Externally, Abbas needs a serious peace process of the kind that immediately stops the consolidation of the occupation and tangibly can be seen to lead to the achievement of the legitimate and just aspirations of the Palestinian people of freedom, independence and statehood. Only this way will the public's confidence in the peace camp be restored .- Published 16/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Only negotiations can strengthen Abbas
by Yossi Beilin
After Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) angrily resigned the post of prime minister, was replaced by Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and returned to private life, I met with him in an apartment in Amman. Our talk lasted for hours--perhaps the longest conversation we have had in recent years. Toward its conclusion, I asked if he would ever return to politics. He smiled his famous smile and stated--as one stating a simple fact: "Yes! When a successor is needed for Arafat, and only then, I'll be called to serve and have no choice but to accept. I won't lead the Palestinian people for long. My task will be to stabilize the system and hand the torch to the younger generation, those who are 40 today."
The reality of that apartment in Amman and Abbas' surprising self-confidence were a far cry from the external situation and Abbas' image at the time as a political corpse. But he was right. Arafat died, Abbas was summoned to succeed him, won by a large majority and upon his election announced that he would not serve more than a single term of office. Since he was elected, everyone dreads the day he decides to leave office: everyone knows he hates ruling.
Abbas' political future is a personal issue. In a year or two, he will probably return to his family and write books. Our issue is whether it is possible to transform the remainder of his term into a period of substantive change in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. My response is that we will be making a terrible mistake if we don't take advantage of the months ahead.
This may be a case of a weak leader. Undoubtedly, what happened of late in Gaza has weakened him even more. He is the president of a ruptured authority, with a parliament in which only a minority supports his party and he can't pass laws and decisions. He is held back by constraints originally intended to reduce Arafat's authority but that now hurt him.
Yet there can be no doubt that he also embodies considerable power. He heads the PLO, the legitimate representative organization of the Palestinian people, which sits in the United Nations and other international organizations from the Socialist International to cultural and educational bodies. It is with the PLO that we signed the Oslo Accord in 1993 and the Interim Agreement in 1995. The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the PLO will be honored by the entire world and accepted by the Arab League as satisfying the demands of the Arab peace initiative.
Abbas alone holds this key. No one knows who will succeed him; no one knows whether the future will produce a Palestinian leader as courageous as him, as comprehending of the importance of peace with Israel for the Palestinian national interest and as ready to reach an historic compromise over such sensitive issues as Jerusalem and the refugees.
In addressing Abbas' weaknesses we must ask: weak in what respect? And in addressing the strengthening of Abbas we must also ask: stronger in what respect? Abu Mazen is weak in the sense that the security establishment at his disposal is weak, as was proved in the recent confrontation in the Gaza Strip. But is the right response to send him rifles and train the forces currently loyal to him? Not necessarily. Abbas can only be strengthened in the area where he can demonstrate his power: political negotiations. Only negotiations over final status can bolster his position and enable him to demonstrate to his people that he can "deliver the goods". Only a comprehensive final status agreement with the PLO will generate worldwide acceptance of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, recognition of our eastern border, removal of the refugee issue from our agenda and the safeguarding of a Jewish majority in a democratic Israel.
If 22 Arab embassies open in Jerusalem alongside all the other embassies currently located in Tel Aviv; if the strategic transformation takes place; and if Israel finally becomes an integral part of the Middle East--we may still have to confront a security issue. An agreement may eliminate the motive for Palestinians to use violence against us. But if, God forbid, violence does occur, and if Abbas cannot control it, then we'll have to inform him that we have no alternative but to employ force, just as we do today, against those who violate the agreement with us. Except that this time it will be done with international legitimacy.- Published 16/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israeli intransigence the key
by George Giacaman
Ever since he was elected to head the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January 2005 there has been a recurrent din about the "need to strengthen" Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The US administration has been broadly supportive of such an endeavor, but Israeli officials have consistently described him as "weak" and "ineffectual".
Since the takeover of Gaza by Hamas in mid-June, the "need to strengthen Abbas" has grown to a clamor. The essential question then revolves around the sources of the weaknesses or strengths of Abu Mazen.
Since the platform Abbas ran on in the presidential elections was known to all (no to armed resistance, yes to negotiations), for a whole year after he was elected and until Hamas came to power in the parliamentary elections of January 2006 it was Israeli policies that weakened him.
For example, the release of a sizable number of political prisoners in this time could have been an important goodwill gesture and would have created a positive resonance among Palestinians given the centrality of the issue for a broad sector of the public. But instead the wall continued to be built, more roadblocks and hindrances to free access to land increased, land confiscation continued and there was no progress in "negotiations".
It is generally agreed among Palestinian analysts that there are two main factors that led to Hamas' victory in the parliamentary elections: corruption in PA quarters and the lack of progress toward what Fateh calls the "National Project", that is the two-state solution as understood by Palestinians. It is also generally agreed that had there been credible political progress and improvement in economic conditions, Hamas would not have done so well.
The fact of the matter is that there has been no political process to speak of since the breakdown of the Camp David talks in July 2000. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan was in fact meant to fill the vacuum created by the lack of such a process, and without negotiations with the Palestinian side.
It should be clear that for the last seven years, various Israeli governments have been avoiding any serious political process. One reason for that is the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a domestic Israeli issue, given the lack of external pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land. Israel as a state has been far too successful in warding-off external pressure, largely due to the influence of the Israel lobby on the US Congress and the US administration, especially under President George W. Bush.
As a result, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned into a "political football" to be tossed around by various Israeli political parties. Electoral and domestic factors predominate and politicians outbid each other in showing that they are not soft on "security".
The "security first" route has been the undoing of the Oslo process especially since what Israel is willing to "give" Palestinians at the end of any similar process, no Palestinian leader with any credibility can accept. This is due to the fact that Israeli domestic politics has become the main arbiter on how to end the conflict.
The political future of Abbas will be decided on the basis of the platform he ran on. The Hamas takeover of Gaza, odd as it may sound, may in fact present Abbas with an opportunity. He needs to impress upon the US, Israel, the Quartet and Arab governments that unless there is a credible political process leading to a two-state solution, he will resign and dissolve the PA. And it is a position he must stand by. Otherwise, his political future is doomed by Israeli intransigence.- Published 16/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches in the MA Program on Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University. He is co-editor of "After Oslo" (1998), and "State Formation in Palestine" (2004). A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in early 2008.
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