The last Palestinian
The last Palestinian
The Gaza War's Main Impacts on Egypt
The Gaza War's Main Impacts on Egypt
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 14 minutes

The last Palestinian

Much as his political ascent gave shape to the contemporary Palestinian landscape, Yasser Arafat's death will fundamentally transform it.

Arafat was unique, and uniquely suited to his people's condition following the 1948 war: defeated, dispossessed, and dispersed, without a state to defend them, a territory to hold them, or a political strategy to unite them. Palestinians were divided by family, class, and clan, scattered throughout the region and beyond, exploited by the competing purposes of many and prey to the ambitions of all.

By dint of his history and personality, charisma and guile, cajoling and bullying, luck and sheer perseverance, Arafat came to represent them equally and to emerge as the face of the Palestinian people, to them and to the world.

Arafat's paramount goal was national unity, without which he believed nothing could be achieved. He was the bridge between Palestinians in the Diaspora and those on the inside, those who were dispossessed in 1948 and those who were occupied in 1967, West Bankers and Gazans, young and old, rich and poor, swindlers and honest toilers, modernists and traditionalists, militarists and pacifists, Islamists and secularists. He was national leader, tribesman, family elder, employer, Samaritan, head of a secular-nationalist movement, and deeply devout all at once, aspiring to be the preeminent embodiment of each of these disparate groups, even when they held opposing views.

His style was often criticized and disparaged, but his preeminent position was seldom questioned. No Palestinian leader is likely to reproduce his kind of politics, almost certainly not under conditions of occupation, and unquestionably not right now.

The man chosen to succeed him is in most ways different but in one critical respect the same. Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a rarity: a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But he is so in radically dissimilar fashion. Where Arafat attained national status by identifying with and belonging to every single constituency and factional interest, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. Arafat immersed himself in local politics; Abu Mazen floats above it, his service being to the national movement as a whole.

The Old Man, with inexhaustible bravado, ruled through an overwhelming and overpowering rhetorical and physical presence. Unassuming and understated, a man of few words but many deeds, the new president has built a career running from the limelight. He was born in what is now Israel in 1935 and left in 1948. A founding member of Fatah, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, an adviser to Arafat, and principal behind-the-scenes negotiator from the Madrid Conference in 1991 to the Oslo Accords in 1993, he was often influential, but seldom visible. Until now, his one brush with public office was his short-lived tenure as prime minister in 2003. With Arafat's passing, the politics of weightiness are over; enter the politics of the light touch.

Arafat inhabited a Borgesian world where a thing and its opposite could cohabit at the same point in space and time; where what mattered was the impact of language, not the actual meaning of words; and where myths combined with facts to produce reality. Abu Mazen's world is more rooted in what is familiar and recognized by most people as the order of things. His language is of the acceptable, more everyday variety, his reality far less animated by the ghosts of the past. Instead of the politics of ambiguous and creative intensity, he stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality.

Logic and reason

Abu Mazen is a politician of conviction, which is to say, until recently, not much of a politician at all. His behavior is rarely scheming; it is, if anything, a pure outgrowth of his emotional and temperamental makeup, a feature that accounts for his many successes and not a few of his setbacks. Guided by a deep sense of ethics, repugnance for sheer political expediency, and an exaggerated faith in the power of reason, he will seldom give in or fight back when rebuffed or slighted. Convinced that he has logic and reason on his side, and equally convinced that logic and reason are the faculties that guide all others, he would much rather passively wait until in due course people see things his way. There is little of the manipulator, deceiver, or conspirator in him, which is perhaps why he is so unforgiving of the manipulations, deceptions, and conspiracies of others.

Abu Mazen is also a profoundly pious Muslim. Inspired by Islam but allergic to its role in politics, he prays daily and fasts at Ramadan but publicizes neither, feeling as he does that religion is a matter of private belief, not public display, let alone public regulation. In his now regular dealings with leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, this gives him an unmistakable edge; he is convinced he is no less a Muslim than they are, and when he meets a self-proclaimed Islamist politician, he sees the politician, not the Islamist.

Most importantly, he holds to a core set of principles which he is disinclined to depart from or compromise. In the fall of 1999, in the aftermath of Ehud Barak's election as Israel's prime minister, he presented U.S. officials with a straightforward proposal for a final deal: a Palestinian state within the borders of June 4, 1967, East Jerusalem as its capital, and recognition of the principle of the refugees' right of return. Within those "parameters," and consistent with international legality, he left room for discussion. There would be minor and equitable swaps of land to take account of some Israeli settlements; provisions to allow Jews unimpeded access to their holy sites; and the right of return would be implemented in a manner that would not threaten Israel's demographic interests. But prior acceptance of the basic proposal was paramount, for without it there could be neither international legitimacy nor a just peace. The U.S. and Israel ignored his suggestion. Negotiations progressed along a bazaar-like path of posturing and deal-making, untethered to any core principle: The percentages of West Bank territory to be turned over by Israel varied furiously, as did the proposed allocation of sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the number of refugees allowed to resettle in Israel.

This mode of negotiating was anathema to Abu Mazen, who believed that nothing good would come of it, feeling it was counterproductive for Palestinians and, to the extent it raised false expectations about the scope of possible Palestinian compromises, dishonest to Israelis. When, in addition, his suggestion in the spring of 2000 for secret negotiations between nonofficials from each side was spurned by Barak, and other, less suitable Palestinian officials were selected to lead the talks, he essentially checked himself out.

Uncomfortable with how negotiations had proceeded up until the Camp David summit, Abu Mazen was adamantly opposed to the outbreak of violence that followed it. Violence long struck him as pointless and unsound, tantamount to using the weakest Palestinian weapon to assail Israel's strongest flank. Abu Mazen looked at violence in purely cost-benefit terms, and while the costs were high, benefits were few: Israelis closed ranks, the United States took sides, the international community turned its back, and the Palestinian Authority fell apart.

Instead, he believes the goal ought to be to engage with various Israeli political groups, talk in a language that Washington understands and rally the world to the Palestinians' cause. To that end, Palestinians must stabilize the situation, restore law and order, rein in all armed militias, build transparent, legitimate centralized institutions, and, above all, cease armed attacks against Israel. In his vision, means and ends mesh: If Palestinians make a fair case, they can get a fair hearing. Out of Palestinian restraint will come both stronger international support and greater receptivity by the Israeli public to logical demands.

His belief in persuasion and principle over violent pressure is a risky and, to many Palestinians, a reckless one. As they see it, Palestinians did not militarize the confrontation, Israel did; in the opening weeks of the intifada, the overwhelming number of casualties were Palestinian, not Israeli; when tentative and informal cease-fires were reached, Israel breached them; and if Palestinians stop fighting, they would unilaterally disarm, removing all pressure on Israel to compromise.

Abu Mazen's different view is informed by his long experience with Israel. As part of a PLO threesome, along with Yasser Arafat and Khalil El-Wazir (Abu Jihad), he oversaw contacts with Israelis as of the mid-1970s. Though these began with fringe, anti-Zionist activists, they gradually were to include Arab-Israelis, the Zionist left, moderate former military officers, and members of the Labor Party. After the Oslo Accords, Abu Mazen expanded his reach to include less obvious but, in his eyes, more relevant forces: the Likud and Orthodox Jews. From those exchanges, he concluded that Israeli society was both intriguingly complex in its divisions and disarmingly simple in its aspirations, which are to achieve normalcy and security. If offered that outcome, Israelis, in his view, ultimately would be willing to make the concessions required for a stable and just peace - a conviction that strikes some Palestinians as the height of naivete, others as the pinnacle of pragmatism.

Ariel Sharon has won the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His goal, an age-old objective, was for Palestinians to tire of their national struggle. To bring about the impoverishment and despair of the Palestinian people was never his purpose as such, but he viewed that result as a prerequisite to diverting the Palestinians' concentration from political issues to mundane matters of more immediate, quotidian concern. He appears to have achieved this ambition, an outcome Abu Mazen long predicted, which is why at the very outset of the armed intifada in 2000 he called for it to end. The uprising, he warned, would hurt Palestinians more than Israelis.

Palestinian exhaustion suits both men's purposes for now, though they differ sharply on what they intend to do with it. In Sharon's eyes, it provides a welcome means to depoliticize the Palestinian national movement; in Abu Mazen's, it is a necessary phase before the Palestinian nation can be repoliticized on new grounds.

The Palestinian leader holds little hope that a comprehensive settlement can be reached with Ariel Sharon. Too much separates them, not least the Israeli prime minister's preference for a long-term interim agreement in which hard issues, such as the final borders, status of Jerusalem, and fate of refugees, are indefinitely put off. With such differing notions, the immediate period is not the time for a bilateral agreement but for unilateral steps, with Israel withdrawing from Gaza and the northern West Bank and Palestinians putting their house in order. Negotiations leading to a permanent settlement remain his goal, but he does not think that the other side is ready yet. By rebuilding Palestinian institutions and the national movement itself, genuinely renouncing violence, rekindling international ties, and clearly articulating basic and unalterable Palestinian requirements, he believes the post-Sharon stage can be prepared for or even accelerated and that, in the intervening time, his people will reap the benefits of newfound and long-awaited tranquility.

This unquestionably is a gamble. Abu Mazen's support is as wide as it is fickle, a reflection of circumstance far more than of adherence to his person or program. The current state of shock among Palestinians is likely to subside, their fear to abate, and their exhaustion to end, at which point demands of a more political kind - for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, stop settlement construction, or end the occupation, for example - are likely to be voiced. As time passes, choices inevitably will have to be made, and enemies too. Some who half-heartedly support him now will break ranks, the prospect of an organized and effective opposition will arise, and calls for renewed violence will be heard. Abu Mazen hopes that, by then, he will have produced tangible returns in the form of stability, law and order, improved standards of living, and freedom of movement, accumulating political capital more quickly than he spends it and compensating for the loss of support from some constituents by the consolidation of support from others.

To succeed, Abu Mazen is banking heavily on support from the international community, principally the United States, to get beyond the immediate, material improvements in the Palestinians' situation. Ending violence and implementing institutional reforms are causes he believes in deeply, and that he would carry out for the good of the Palestinian people, no matter what. But he also sees an important side benefit, which is to put President Bush to the test and confront him with his words. More than once, Bush has said that reining in militant groups and democratizing Palestinian society would lead to a two-state solution. If the Palestinians live up to their commitments, Abu Mazen hopes, the U. S. will have to live up to its own, putting pressure on Israel to make the political concessions that he desperately will need.

Abu Mazen also is relying on changes within Israel, expecting that the quieter situation he will produce can lead to domestic pressure for a comprehensive deal, as opposed to popular contentment with the status quo. If that can be done quickly enough, Palestinian impatience can be managed, and a return to armed confrontation averted.

Abu Mazen enjoys a power that is at once nearly absolute and likely temporary. Unburdened by the need to cater to every constituency, his margin of maneuver is remarkably broad. But should the prevailing mood change, the U.S. fail to pressure Israel, or Israel fail to respond, the consensus that has swiftly formed around him will just as quickly evaporate.

He confronts two additional and paradoxical challenges. First, because his principal asset is international credit rather than domestic credibility, and because Palestinians are convinced that the U.S. can get from Israel what they themselves cannot, ultimately more will be expected of him than of Arafat. Second, insofar as his backing is chiefly the result of popular fatigue, the more he succeeds in improving the situation, the more he risks chipping away at his own support.

Among potential landmines, two lie immediately ahead. The first is Israel's disengagement from Gaza. This is not something he can oppose: Land is being turned over to Palestinians and, for the first time in the history of the conflict, settlements are to be evacuated. Gaza, free of Israel's presence, can be rebuilt and serve as a model for the rest of the occupied territories. But it also is something he cannot afford to warmly embrace: Many of his people fear that with all eyes fixed on Gaza, the withdrawal there will be accompanied by a greater thickening of settlement blocs inside the West Bank, more Israeli construction in the strategic area of Jerusalem and continued building of the separation fence, all part of a suspected broader plan to impose long-term, de facto borders that will divide the West Bank into cantons. Balancing between these two considerations, Abu Mazen is likely to praise the Gaza withdrawal as an achievement that is part of the road map, keeping any coordination with the Israelis to a minimum and keeping the bulk of international attention on the West Bank.

The second landmine is one he knows to be in the offing: an Israeli proposal to establish a Palestinian state with interim borders in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Eager for a political achievement, and obsessed with the imperative of institution-building, the United States and Europe are likely to press for his approval. Even some Arab countries, desperate for stability and for any sign of progress, can be expected to join the chorus. But what some see as an Israeli concession, Abu Mazen sees as a trap, an attempt to defuse the conflict, deprive it of its emotional power, reduce it to a simple and manageable border dispute, and defer a comprehensive settlement. He will strive to find a way neither to alienate important international backers nor break faith with his own deep-seated conviction that the proposal is a ruse - though how he can do both, at this point, even he does not know.

Power undoubtedly will affect him, as it affects all who sample it. Already, he has had to acquire, or feign, a taste for the oratory and the pressing of the flesh for which Arafat was famous. More broadly, his political survival will require the kind of tough balancing act he typically disdained and generally left to the Old Man: focusing on material improvement without neglecting political issues; maintaining Israeli and American confidence without losing that of Hamas or of Islamic Jihad; disciplining the armed militias without crushing them; looking out for the older generation without disappointing the new; maintaining Fatah's unity without being hamstrung by it; fulfilling US demands without appearing to comply with all of its wishes; ending the violence without seeming to submit to Israel; and, of course, moving away from Arafat's legacy without breaking with it.

Over time, the fundamental challenge will be whether he can reconcile the numerous expectations he now embodies and channel the somewhat lukewarm backing he enjoys from often competing groups into active support for himself and his policies. In this sense, the election results both overestimate and underestimate his strength: The more than 60 percent who voted for him did not all endorse his platform, and the more than 30 percent who did not vote for him do not make up a coherent, unified, and effective opposition.

There are, too, a series of unanswered questions. What will happen if Abu Mazen cannot deliver what the U.S. and Israel require, and what will happen if Bush and Sharon do not produce what Abu Mazen needs? What if Abu Mazen is unable to reach a deal with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah militants, or if he reaches a deal but it does not hold, or if it holds but Israel continues its military attacks? What if the fragile political consensus around him breaks down or if violent infighting breaks out?

During his ephemeral tenure as prime minister in 2003, at a time when he enjoyed the support of the United States, the help of the United Nations, of Europe, and of much of the Arab world, we asked why, in the midst of such a crowd, he felt so lonely. He operated then without popular support, with substantial opposition, and in the shadow of a founding and interloping father. A year a half later, the father is no more and every significant Palestinian constituency now looks to Abu Mazen and relies on him. He has become the object of countless, often incompatible, desires. A protector and a savior, a transitional figure and a generation's last best hope, the devil they know for some and the lesser of all evils for others. To Palestinians, Abu Mazen has become all of these, all at once. It has become crowded out there, and isolated he certainly is no longer. As he looks upon what lies ahead, he at times must wonder where all his constituents have come from, how long they will stand by him, and what he has done to deserve their abundant and often cumbersome company.


Former President & CEO
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Hussein Agha
Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford

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