A leader banking on the US to deliver a breakthrough
A leader banking on the US to deliver a breakthrough
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

A leader banking on the US to deliver a breakthrough

Much as his political ascent gave shape to the Palestinian landscape, Yasser Arafat's death will transform it. The man set to succeed him in tomorrow's elections is in most ways different, but in one critical respect the same. Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But where Arafat attained national status by belonging to every single constituency, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. The Old Man ruled through an overwhelming rhetorical and physical presence. Unassuming and understated, the new president has built a career running from the limelight. Arafat inhabited a world where a thing and its opposite could cohabit. Abu Mazen's world is rooted in what is recognised by most as theorder of things. Instead of the politics of creative intensity, he stands for the politics of cool rationality.

He also holds to a core set of principles. In 1999, he presented US 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, he left room for discussion. There would be equitable swaps of land; provisions to allow Jews unimpeded access to holy sites; and the right of return would be implemented in a manner that would not threaten Israel's demographic interests. The US and Israel ignored his suggestion. Negotiations progressed along a bazaar-like path of posturing and deal-making. This mode of negotiating was anathema to Abu Mazen, who believed nothing good would come of it.

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. He looked at violence in cost-benefit terms, and while the costs were high, benefits were few: Israelis closed ranks, the US 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 Israeli political groups, talk in a language that Washington understands, and rally the world to the Palestinians' cause. To that end, Palestinians must restore law and order, build transparent, centralised institutions and cease armed attacks against Israel. In his vision, out of Palestinian restraint will come both international support and receptivity by the Israeli public to logical demands.

His belief in persuasion over violent pressure is a risky and, to many Palestinians, reckless one. As they see it, Palestinians did not militarise the confrontation, Israel did; and if Palestinians stop fighting, they would remove all pressure on Israel to compromise. Abu Mazen's view is that Israeli society is both intriguingly complex 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.

Four years into a devastating armed confrontation with Israel, and with the loss of the only leader they have known, Palestinians are in shock, afraid and tired. Neither the public nor any significant constituent group is in the mood for a fight; Abu Mazen, who was the first choice of no single constituency, was every constituency's natural one. He is today the last Palestinian with national stature and historic credentials.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are well aware that his programme is incompatible with theirs. But they have lived with him before, and are confident they can do so again. Convinced that Israel will not give him a fair chance and that he therefore will fail, they can afford to wait while benefiting from an overdue respite.

Those who adhere fully to his political vision are few. But for now, Abu Mazen is relatively free to act on his own. Perhaps most importantly, he has achieved this position because his political inclinations are in harmony with his people's immediate priorities: security, a normal life and freedom of movement without constant roadblocks, curfews and humiliation.

Ariel Sharon has won the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His goal 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 from political issues to mundane matters of more immediate concern. He appears to have achieved this ambition, an outcome Abu Mazen long predicted.

The Palestinian leader holds little hope that a comprehensive settlement can be reached with Sharon. Too much separates them, not least the Israeli prime minister's preference for a long-term interim agreement in which the final borders, status of Jerusalem and fate of refugees are indefinitely put off. With such differing notions, the immediate period is a time 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 yet ready.

Abu Mazen's support is as wide as it is fickle. 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 are likely to be voiced. Some who half-heartedly support him now will break ranks and calls for renewed violence will be heard. Abu Mazen hopes that, by then, he will have produced tangible returns.

To succeed, Abu Mazen is banking on support from the international community, principally the US. Ending violence and implementing institutional reforms are causes he believes in. But he also sees an important side-benefit, which is to put President Bush to the test. Bush has said that reining in militant groups and democratising Palestinian society would lead to a two-state solution. If the Palestinians live up to their commitments, Abu Mazen hopes, the US will have to live up to its own. Abu Mazen must extract suf ficient movement sufficiently soon from Israel and the international community lest the now tired Palestinians eventually tire of him as well.

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 settlements are to be evacuated. But it is also something he cannot afford to embrace: many of his people fear that the withdrawal will be accompanied by a thickening of West Bank settlement blocs and continued building of the separation fence, part of a suspected plan to impose long-term, de facto borders that will divide the West Bank into cantons.

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, the US, Europe and even some Arab countries are likely to press for his approval. But what some see as an Israeli concession, Abu Mazen sees as a trap, an attempt to defuse the conflict, reduce it to a simple and manageable border dispute and defer a comprehensive settlement.


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

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