Abbas or Arafat?
Israeli media reports that President Bush was recently surprised to learn that Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas was not, as he had imagined, the aggressive young leader of a new generation risen to challenge Arafat, but instead a 68-year-old PLO veteran who had spent most of his political career by Arafat's side, who still reports back to Arafat despite the U.S.-Israeli boycott of the Palestinian Authority president. The President may also have been somewhat frustrated to discover, in his meeting Tuesday with Arab leaders who back the "roadmap," that Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians the U.S. had hoped to persuade the meeting to issue a ringing endorsement of Abbas that would effectively crown him as the man in charge of Palestinian affairs, but the meeting instead undertook simply to "support the determination of the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its responsibilities to end violence and to restore law and order" and its statement avoided even mentioning the new prime minister by name. That may be because in the minds of the Arab neighbors and Abbas himself Arafat's cooperation is essential to the success of the "roadmap."
Abbas, appointed prime minister by Arafat under pressure from the international community, certainly has important differences with the PA president, most importantly over the 30-month armed intifada which Abbas sees as having brought the Palestinians nothing but misery and international isolation. The new prime minister wants the violence stopped and negotiations resumed, believing that even if Sharon is unwilling to grant the Palestinians' bottom-line demands, stopping terror will swing international (and even Israeli) public opinion back behind the Palestinian pursuit of statehood in the 1967 territories.
Abbas is politically weak, however, and to succeed even in meeting the security requirements of the first phase of the "roadmap," he will depend on coaxing a cease-fire agreement out of the Palestinian radical groups waging the armed intifada. The combination of persuasion and enforcement necessary to halt terrorism will almost certainly require the support of Yasser Arafat, who remains more powerful than Abbas both inside the Palestinian Authority and on the street.
The primary focus of the U.S. and Israel going into the "roadmap" process is a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism, which not only restrains the groups who attack Israelis but arrests their leaders, disarms and dissolves them. That goal may be beyond the reach of Abbas or any other Palestinian leader right now, and instead the prime minister is focused on persuading Hamas (and other organizations) to embrace a cease-fire. His security chief has drawn up plans to buy back weapons from militant groups and integrate gunmen into the security services. That's not exactly the comprehensive war on terror the Israelis or the Bush administration may have been hoping for, but there's still a degree of optimism among Israelis and Palestinians that Abbas could persuade Hamas to hold their fire.
Hamas's own intentions, however, are not clear. The movement also wants to avoid being blamed by Palestinians and other Arabs for the collapse of a peace initiative, so they may play along in the belief that Abbas is bound to fail and that the Israelis will, sooner or later, provide a pretext to resume terror strikes although statements from Hamas leaders following the Aqaba summit defiantly rejected any notion of a cease-fire. Abbas is also making clear to the Israelis and Americans that he can't act against terrorism while Israeli troops continue to conduct raids inside PA territory, and that Israeli restraint is the key to any success. But given the relative certainty that one or all of the militant groups will sooner or later send suicide bombers to veto the latest peace plan, such restraint may prove difficult for Sharon to maintain and for the Bush administration to request. The security situation may remains a huge obstacle to getting started along the "roadmap," and a major trip wire every step of the way after that.
How Far Will Sharon Go?
Even many Israelis sniggered last year when President Bush used the term "man of peace" to describe Ariel Sharon, legendary warrior and champion of the settler movement who had spent most of the previous decade ferociously opposing the Oslo Accords. But Sharon has kept everybody guessing as to his intentions by speaking the language of peace, promising to make "painful concessions" after the Palestinians stop all violence and, most recently, causing consternation even in his own party by uttering the taboo word "occupation" to describe Israel's rule over the 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Such dovish phrases are all the more confusing when Sharon intersperses them with promises to the settlers that they can start building houses for their great grandchildren.
The real dispute between Sharon and the Palestinians is over land. The Israeli leader has made clear he accepts the inevitability of a Palestinian state and knows Israel can't sustain a regime of occupation over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The question is where the boundaries between such a state and Israel will be drawn, and what will become of the settlements Israel has built on the territories conquered in 1967 which are the basis of the new Palestinian state.
Sharon has previously made clear that his conception of a Palestinian state is contained within the boundaries of the 40-50 percent of the West Bank and 70 percent of Gaza currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority with some modification to ensure territorial contiguity. And the surest indicator of what he has in mind may well be the security fence Israel is currently building to separate Israelis from West Bank Palestinians. Rather than follow the 1967 borders as originally proposed, Sharon's proposed fence essentially encircles the current PA territories in the West Bank, keeping most of the settlements and more than half the land of the West Bank in Israeli hands. Sharon's aides explained his "occupation" remark as a reference to Israeli rule over Palestinian population centers, rather than to the lands conquered in 1967. In other words, whereas the Palestinians and most of the international community assume, in line with the final offer made by Ehud Barak shortly before Sharon's election, that the eventual borders of a Palestinian state will comprise most or all of the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon's vision of Palestine is considerably (in the cartographic sense) narrower. Not surprising, then, Israel's cabinet stopped short of endorsing the "roadmap" itself, instead allowing itself plenty of wiggle room by embracing "steps set out in the roadmap." That's because the full document suggests the endpoint of the process would be guided, in part, by United Nations Resolution 242 and last year's Saudi proposal endorsed by the Arab League, both of which offer Israel peace in exchange for withdrawal from territories seized in 1967.
'Addressing' the Settlements
President Bush has made clear that he expects Sharon to "address" the settlements and allow for territorial contiguity of a Palestinian entity. The roadmap, in its first phase, requires the dismantling of all new settlements and outposts built since March 2001, and the freezing of new construction on settlements built before that. Sharon has spoken of dismantling "illegal" outposts those built without government authorization, although his narrow use of the term "illegal" deflects attention from the fact that the legal status of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is contested, and their future had been put on the negotiating table as a "final status" issue in the Oslo process. His senior party colleague, Reuven Rivlin has said that Sharon plans eventually to evacuate 17 of the 130 permanent Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, in order to allow for territorial contiguity. Suffice to say that neither Abbas nor any Palestinian or Arab leader could accept settle a final-status deal that left half the West Bank in Israeli hands.
All of that, of course, comes much later. More immediately, however, Sharon will insist on making only minor and mostly symbolic concessions until such time as Abbas has demonstrated a will and ability to stop terror attacks.
Perhaps one of the few things the "roadmap" has going for it is that in the Mideast region, expectations of success are almost uniformly low. The Arabs are expecting Sharon to refuse to move against the settlers, while the Israelis are expecting Abbas to fail in his efforts to stop terrorism. Left to navigate the road map without outside supervision, the Israelis and Palestinians would unlikely stay the course for more than a couple of weeks the reason they're talking now is that the Bush administration is micromanaging the process. And the extent of real political differences and deep mistrust between the two sides requires that the U.S. remain on the field as the referee neither side can refuse. Even then, however, it may be something of a long shot, and setbacks are an inherent part of the snakes-and-ladders game of Mideast peacemaking. It's unlike anything President Bush has taken on in the course of his presidency, and the big question in the region is whether it'll remain at the top of his priorities as he enters an election year.