Mahmoud Abbas hopes for win-win resolution to conflict
Mahmoud Abbas hopes for win-win resolution to conflict
With All Eyes on Gaza, Israel Tightens Its Grip on the West Bank
With All Eyes on Gaza, Israel Tightens Its Grip on the West Bank
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 9 minutes

Mahmoud Abbas hopes for win-win resolution to conflict

Mahmoud Abbas hopes for win-win resolution to conflict - While Sharon, Arafat are content with status quo, Palestinian premier firmly supports return to political processes in order to achieve lasting peace.

This article is the third of three parts looking at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Premier Mahmoud Abbas, exploring their perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He has spent a lifetime in politics craving neither the limelight nor paramount political responsibility. Yet as he sits in his office as the Palestinian Authority's first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) finds himself saddled with both. He is the public face of the government, the man upon whom so many pin their hopes and toward whom even more stand ready to direct their resentment. Once eager to escape political conflict, he finds himself in the midst of a perpetual political storm.

He did not seek the position, nor did he plan for it. It sought him and, if he sits where he sits now, he does so far more out of a sense of obligation than for personal ambition. But the sense of obligation has seized him, and today's Abu Mazen is a different man from that of yesterday. His determination, the very sound of his voice - once a hardly distinguishable murmur - are signs of this.

He looks around him and sees Palestinian land thoroughly reoccupied by Israel, the Palestinian Authority destroyed, widespread economic distress and political mayhem. Practically anyone can acquire a gun and claim to make policy by showing it off. This is not resistance, but rather anarchy, and of the worst sort because it is readily exploited by the Palestinians' foes. All of this, too, is happening without the world's lifting a finger, with the Israeli peace camp silent, with the Arabs indifferent. In the court of international official opinion, the Palestinians have lost the moral high ground so patiently acquired over the years.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat cannot be held wholly responsible but, for his erstwhile deputy, neither can he wholly escape blame. The last two-and-a-half years, he is convinced, have been disastrous for the Palestinians, and Arafat, who could have brought the disaster to an end better than anyone else, chose instead not to exercise his full authority. There was nothing new about Arafat's behavior; Abu Mazen was familiar with it as much as he was familiar with the man himself. Only this time, the result was an unmitigated catastrophe because it violated so many of Abu Mazen's cardinal rules: Do not confront Israel with violence, but deal with it through negotiations; maintain bridges with the Israeli public; do not dissipate the Palestinians' international legitimacy.

Violence, in his mind, always has been at best futile, at worst counter-productive. Today, it has backfired, uniting Israeli society against the Palestinians, silencing the Israeli left, pushing the US further to Israel's side, and exposing Palestinians to unprecedented assault from Israel. Israel has its weaknesses, he believes, but they are not of a military sort. Rather, they lie in the country's internal contradictions and in the contradictions inherent in its relations with the US. Negotiations and diplomacy will exacerbate and expose both, driving a wedge within Israel and between Jerusalem and Washington.

By playing the game right, stopping the military uprising and resuming peaceful negotiations, Abu Mazen hopes Palestinians will be in a win-win situation. Sharon will either agree to implement what is immediately demanded of him - withdrawal from recently reoccupied Palestinian territories, a settlement freeze, an end to military attacks - and the Palestinian people will enjoy tangible benefits. Or he will not - and his intentions will be exposed, subjecting him to both US and domestic Israeli pressure.

Palestinian violence, by contrast, obscures these contradictions, spares the Israeli government the need to make a genuine choice and the US administration the challenge to live up to its declared commitments, at the same time blurring the moral clarity of the conflict to the rest of the world, all without even the hope of prevailing militarily.

Once Palestinians have fulfilled their share of the bargain by ending the violence, cracks will emerge in Israel's united front and, with US President George W. Bush's credibility on the line, pressure will grow for Washington to intervene. To rely on Israel's self-doubt and America's self-interest, Abu Mazen knows, involves something of a leap of faith. It requires proving one's peace credentials by acceding to virtually all US demands, however unfair they may seem, and stopping the violence before receiving any tangible political returns.

He knows what others will say - that a return to Palestinian peacefulness will be seen as Sharon's triumph, that as Palestinian violence comes to an end so too will pressures on Israel to make concessions, that he is pushing for unilateral Palestinian disarmament, that Washington will never truly force Israel's hand, and that the bar of Palestinian obligations will continue to rise. But Abu Mazen's is a choice by default, for he sees no other realistic alternative to the worsening of the continuing calamity since the fall of 2000, with no Israeli inhibitions and no American constraints.

In this sense, Abu Mazen is a man with goals both ambitious and modest. He aims at no less than the salvation of the Palestinian cause, stopping what he sees as the current free fall, establishing domestic and international safety nets to stabilize the situation and protect Palestinians from future Israeli threats, and resuming its efforts toward a negotiated settlement. He aspires to cleanse the Palestinian polity, build a strong, respected central authority, establish transparent institutions, put an end to militia rule, help to reinvigorate the Israeli peace camp, and re-establish Palestine's international legitimacy and, importantly, political ties to the US.

Israel, Abbas realizes, has succeeded in monopolizing the call for security, when Palestinians need it just as much, indeed even more. His job is to restore a sense of safety to his people, and to make the world understand that they too deserve it - for only then can there be real security for the Israelis. Palestinians, he feels, must once again come across as a civilized people, living up to their commitments, seeking merely to fulfill their rights under international laws.

Abu Mazen is realistic enough to know that, with Sharon in power, a comprehensive settlement is nowhere in sight. It was not so long ago that, at his "Sycamore ranch," the man who was not yet Israel's prime minister spoke openly to Abu Mazen about his vision of the future. Neither people, Sharon said, are ready for a final deal. Too much divides us - on Jerusalem, on refugees, on the final borders and on other matters as well, but we modestly ought to do what we can. Whatever remains, we must leave to other generations to sort out.

Sharon, for Abu Mazen, has few mysteries and raises even fewer hopes. He sees in Sharon an image of a future in which hard issues are forever postponed - a sugarcoated death sentence for Palestinian national aspirations. But he trusts that, in the end, the Israeli people themselves will realize that a fair and comprehensive political solution will serve their interests, too. For this, he relies on the power of political persuasion and takes solace in the road already traveled.

Israelis once refused to talk to the PLO - no more. They once derided the notion of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, of East Jerusalem as its capital. These too are becoming things of the past. One real hurdle remains, and it concerns the Palestinian refugees. But here again, he sees reason for hope: Sooner or later, Israelis will come to accept the difference between the principle of the right of return and the implementation of that right; they will be ready to recognize the former, so long as the latter addresses Israel's existential and demographic concerns. Meanwhile, so long as Sharon is there, undoing the harm that has been done since the outset of the intifada is Abu Mazen's self-imposed mandate.

As much as anyone else, he is aware of the limits of his power. He enjoys far more international backing than either Sharon or Arafat, yet he is also by far the most vulnerable politically. He counts on and is gratified by this support, but he understands the dangers of an overly warm and suffocating embrace. He realizes that he has an almost impossible mandate - to crush Hamas without provoking a civil war; to restore security without appearing to be doing Israel's bidding; to accommodate US demands without alienating and antagonizing his people.

In undertaking these tasks, he must count on the Bush administration - powerful, mysterious and probably unreliable. He must assume Bush means what he says and will be without a safety net if Bush does not. He neither has, nor expects, popular support, and he has already come under attack for giving Israel too much and getting too little. The most he can hope for is continued backing by the Palestinian groups that half-heartedly brought him there in the first place. Since he is frustrated with Arafat, the temptation to confront him is ever present. Step by step, he will seek to expand his margin of maneuver. But on all major issues, he knows, he will need Arafat's agreement.

And so, his mission begins and ends with reversing the reversals of the past few years. The rest - the pursuit of a comprehensive peace, the conclusion of a final deal - he will have to hope for and wait. For Abu Mazen, the minimal requirements of a final deal that will carry with it the Palestinian people and survive internal challenges are clear and unmoving. They also are virtually indistinguishable from Arafat's and, he is convinced, it is Arafat's signature and none other that will give the deal the legitimacy it needs. His hope is to get to that point before too much damage has been done, before it is too late.

What happens on the Israeli-Palestinian front will depend in no small part on what Bush chooses to do. But it is also upon the shoulders of these three men that the fate of the latest manifestation of the diplomatic process lies. The so-called "road map" for peace is a document manufactured elsewhere, chosen by others for the three of them to continue their decades-old fight through different means. They have been at it for long enough. They have seen proposals like these come and go. So they will adjust.

But in truth it is an odd and awkward choice. Sharon sees the road map as a nuisance, Arafat sees it as a diversion and Abu Mazen alone views it as worthwhile, but then again principally as a potential way out of the current mess. None of the three sees it for what it purports to be: a plan designed to reach a final settlement within three years. Not one of them truly believes in the logic of its gradualist, staged approach to peacemaking, which amounts to Oslo under a different name. Like so many plans before it, it is not its direct practical outcome that matters so much as its political effect - how its various actors will exploit it to maximize their very different, even contradictory goals.

In this, Sharon and Arafat bear striking similarities. Neither is in any particular hurry. Sharon believes that time is on his side, enabling him to continue his longstanding territorial expansion and, bit by bit, to further weaken an adversary he feels is already on the ropes. Arafat considers time his trusted ally as well. At the end of the day, the Palestinians will still be there, and Israel, sooner or later, will have to relent. Neither man seems to fear the chaos nor tumult of the present - each seems to believe he can endure it better than the other can. Power, they have learned, comes from surviving instability, not from seeking to end it. Both understand that to project a sense of desperation is already to have lost the war. Both know that, road map or no road map, the battle must go on, in a shape and with an intensity still to be determined.

Of the three, only Abu Mazen genuinely believes the disarray must be brought to an end, and only he truly aspires to a return to normalcy and a resumption of a political process. In this, he enjoys the support of the United States and the personal backing of its powerful president. He has the help of the United Nations, of Europe, of much of the Arab world. He possesses an internationally adopted instrument, the road map, aimed in the first instance at restoring calm and tailor-made to shore up his domestic position. Why then, in the midst of such a crowd, does he feel so lonely?


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

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