Tue, 08 Mar 2005

Mahmoud Abbas: It is time to walk the walk

Barry Rubin, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Tel Aviv

Events since Yasir Arafat's November death have vindicated those who believed that the Palestinian leader was the main roadblock to peace. For the first time since the stillborn peace accord, prospects are brightening for the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A new leadership has emerged under Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and PLO, which has agreed to a ceasefire, moved toward moderation, and implemented some important internal reforms. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, too, is in a stronger position to deliver his side of the bargain... yet, dangers lurk.

The Israeli government has confirmed -- at considerable political risk -- its intention of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip plus part of the West Bank, while also releasing hundreds of prisoners and accepting a ceasefire. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has formed a coalition with the Labor party, turning his cabinet into a center-left coalition.

Unquestionably, the level of violence is the lowest -- and the prospects for peace highest -in four years. Arab governments are also joining efforts. Egypt has worked hard to moderate the Palestinian side and to create conditions for a successful Gaza turnover. Both Jordan and Egypt have returned ambassadors to Israel. Western governments, encouraged by the departures of the notoriously corrupt Arafat and a highly reputable finance minister, are offering large amounts of aid to Palestinians.

Yet the renewed peace process is only beginning, and a comprehensive solution is still far off. Abbas has barely begun to consolidate his power, and there are significant ideological and political barriers to a successful transformation of the Palestinian scene.

For one thing, Abbas himself lacks any strong or personal political base. He is almost totally dependent on his own Fatah movement, the ruling party of the PA. While the Fatah establishment enjoys a moderate public face, the group itself remains quite hardline. In any showdown, Abbas could count on only a small minority of the mainstream Fatah cadre for support.

Similar hardline thinking continues to dominate Palestinian media, mosques, and schools -- all PA-controlled -- as well as radical groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Indeed, since Abbas came to power, the PA has made few arrests for terrorist involvement. His strategy, to verbally discourage radical action, only sometimes works. When coercion fails, the Palestinian leadership depends on Israeli security to stop the several dozen attacks planned or mounted every day.

Even more ironic is the fact that a large segment of the Palestinian public recognizes the need for a ceasefire. The war mounted by Arafat and Barghuti was a military and economic disaster, and a source of heavy casualties for both sides.

But Abbas has repeatedly insisted that he will not use force against any Palestinian groups. While he understandably seeks to avoid civil strife, this strategy highlights the ease with which he can be defied. The political situation is at the mercy of even the smallest organization, like the Islamic Jihad group responsible for the February 25 Tel Aviv attack, which killed five Israeli civilians.

Abbas's first task will be maintaining the ceasefire and facilitating the redeployment of Israeli forces to the positions they held before the second intifada. Israel has scheduled its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip -- to be coordinated with the PA -- for July. For Israel, this step involves some security risks, as the Gaza Strip could become a safe haven for terrorists attacking across the border.

For the Palestinian leadership, however, the challenge will be far more complex. The PA must provide a real government for the Gaza Strip. Supposedly, it has done so since 1994, but Arafat never evinced much interest in providing social services and promoting economic development. Now, the PA must persuade its own citizens and international donors that it is doing a good job and using aid well -- and honestly. At the same time, it will need to extend its authority over all the factions, militias, and official security forces that want to continue running their own mini-kingdoms.

As is the case with terrorism, if Abbas and the PA cannot impose their control on their expanding territory and gain legitimacy among their own people, the chance for peace and a Palestinian state could be postponed for years. Only by implementing a ceasefire and successfully taking command in Gaza, can the leadership secure any serious prospect for progress in comprehensive negotiations.

The outline of a full peace agreement is now basically clear. An independent Palestinian state -- consisting of the entire Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- would be created in exchange for an end to the conflict.

Far more difficult, however, is the continuing Palestinian demand that all refugees and their descendants be able to live within Israel. Israel views this as part of a long-term plan for its destruction, an impractical arrangement that would lead to constant disorder and violence. Palestinian leaders have, at times, told the West that this "right of return" would be purely symbolic, though they assure their constituents otherwise. They are also reluctant to declare a decisive end to the conflict. Unless these matters are resolved, a full peace agreement will be impossible.

Abbas has barely begun to refocus his people on the final goal of independence alongside Israel, rather than a long-term campaign to eliminate Israel completely.

In contrast, Sharon has already dealt with his domestic problems, obtaining a free hand in negotiating. After pushing uncooperative right-wing parties out of the coalition, he brought in the Labor party. Given his parliamentary majority, Sharon will assuredly remain in office through 2006. Any extremist attempts at violence would overwhelmingly consolidate support for a moderate policy.

Sharon also has an alternative course of action provided by his insistence that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will be unilateral if necessary. In other words, even if PA negotiations falter or the ceasefire breaks down, he plans to continue with the planned redeployment and the removal of Jewish settlers.

Consequently, while the post-Arafat period has already yielded a breakthrough reduction of antagonism and violence, resolving the conflict will remain extremely difficult and time-consuming. The most important determinant of success or failure will be the actions -- not merely the words -- of the new Palestinian leadership.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary University. He is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online, (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu).