Vol. 4, No. 9 November 30, 2004
Arafat’s death generated new hopes in the international community that a “window of opportunity” had now opened in the Middle East peace process.
Meanwhile, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was elected to succeed Arafat as the PLO chairman, faces grave challenges to his leadership. Arafat left to his successors a regime that necessarily – and unlike his absolutist pattern of governing – will be based on a broad coalition between the various political and terrorist factions.
Given its fragility, the new Palestinian leadership’s agenda will be focused on strengthening its political authority rather than demonstrating greater willingness to make significant political concessions in future negotiations.
Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Alla said during his visit with Abu Mazen to Cairo that the PA intention to “settle the issue of carrying weapons [in public] does not mean ceasing the resistance. The resistance will prevail as long as the occupation [exists]. Its nature will be determined by the [Palestinian] leadership and the circumstances of each stage.”
There is clearly a growing contradiction between the determination of the U.S. and the EU to move quickly with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the degree to which the Palestinians have the self-confidence and inner stability to become fully engaged as negotiating partners.
The death of Yasser Arafat, a few days after President Bush was reelected for a second term, generated new hopes in the international community that a “window of opportunity” had now opened in the Middle East peace process. It is believed that the newly elected Palestinian leadership will create the political conditions needed for resuming the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) after four years of armed struggle and terror. The key players in the Quartet – the U.S. and the EU – are still studying the implications of Arafat’s death for the Palestinian political arena and for their interests in the Middle East.
Elevated International Expectations
However, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, in a joint press conference on November 12, 2004, have already set the outlines of their future policy based on the following components:
The presidential elections in the PA are an essential stage in the course of stabilizing the new Palestinian regime. Bush emphasized that the Palestinian people will elect a “president” in January 2005 and not a “chairman,” as defined in the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement. His use of the term “president,” which matches the Palestinian interpretation of “rais” (a term which has the double meaning of chairman and president), may indicate a U.S. intention to upgrade the status of the PA from a “political entity” to a “state.”
The Israeli plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and the area of Jenin is an important and essential step in implementing the Roadmap.
At the same time, Blair has been emphasizing, even before Arafat’s death, that revitalizing a full-blown Middle East peace process is the “single most pressing political challenge in our world today.” Thus, there is a European sense of urgency combined with an American sense of opportunity.
Comprehensive and active support of the elected Palestinian leadership is seen as necessary to encourage democracy in Palestinian society and motivate the PA to crack down on terrorism in order to pave the way for an independent Palestinian state.1
EU foreign ministers have also discussed new initiatives for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict formulated by Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Solana tried to persuade his counterparts that his initiative, if adopted as an official EU action plan, is capable of reviving the peace process by creating the mechanism necessary for combining the disengagement plan with the Roadmap. Solana’s plan attributes great importance to strengthening the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership by holding democratic elections for both the Palestinian Authority presidency and parliament, conducting administrative and security reforms, reinforcing the security and intelligence forces, and improving the Palestinian economy.
Solana’s initiative strives to “jump” to the second stage of the Roadmap by determining that the PA is eligible for international recognition as a Palestinian state within temporary borders.2 In effect, this would skip over the Palestinian requirement to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure as required in the Roadmap’s first stage. Moreover, Solana told Der Spiegel in November that, in the framework of the Roadmap, he seeks an Israeli commitment to a full withdrawal “from all the occupied areas” – a clear alteration of UN Security Council Resolution 242.3
The U.S. administration and the EU expect Israel to be both pragmatic and generous in its relations with the PA. Israel is seen as the main party that can contribute the most to rehabilitating the PA politically and economically. In light of what is viewed as a historical opportunity to resume the peace process, and bearing in mind the lessons from Mahmud Abbas’s failure in 2003, it is likely that the international community will express impatience with the Israeli government if Israel foils the political initiatives by taking what may be viewed as “unnecessary” military measures or is seen to sabotage the Palestinian elections.
The coming months will witness intensive political activity focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Senior American and European envoys have already visited Israel and the PA, and the supreme institutions of the EU will be discussing the future policy of the EU in the Middle East.4
Palestinian Internal Realities
Meanwhile, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was elected to succeed Arafat as PLO chairman, faces grave challenges to his leadership. Arafat left to his successors a regime that necessarily – and unlike his absolutist pattern of governing – will be based on a broad coalition between the various political and terrorist factions.5 The foundations for this interorganizational coordination were established during the second intifada with the establishment of the “Nationalist and Islamic Forces” – an umbrella for joint operations by Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other secular Palestinian groups. Abu Mazen’s need to rely on such a broad coalition will probably neutralize any possibility that a strong leader will emerge in the near future with the same stature that Arafat had.6 In addition, all of Abu Mazen’s efforts to persuade the Islamic movements to join the PLO have been in vain.
The new Palestinian leadership has acquired legitimacy in accordance with the constitutions of the PA, the PLO, and Fatah. However, the public demand to hold elections as soon as possible reflects the common notion that this leadership is temporary, and that it depends on acquiring the approval of the “intifada generation.” For all the factions, parliamentary elections are seen as the mechanism to reorganize the “Palestinian house” after the Arafat era and to enable the opposition to take part in decision-making.
Yet Abu Mazen’s leadership is threatened by numerous political forces that limit his ability to maneuver politically:
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military-terrorist wing of Fatah, have not yet transferred their total and unconditional loyalty to Abu Mazen and his political agenda, even though they gave their eventual approval for his candidacy on behalf of Fatah. A few days after Arafat’s death, the Brigades challenged Abu Mazen by calling on Fatah to nominate their imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti as its candidate for president.7 At the same time, they conveyed a threatening message to Abu Mazen by means of a shooting attack while he visited the mourning tent for Arafat in Gaza.8 They also published leaflets demanding a full investigation of corrupt officials and specifically warning against any deviation from Arafat’s political heritage – namely, the legitimacy of the armed struggle until all “Palestinian rights are restored,”9 including a commitment to a Palestinian “right of return.” Abu Mazen’s need to obtain Barghouti’s consent for his candidacy demonstrates the power of the Brigades, which may be strengthened even more after elections to Fatah institutions are held in August 2005.10
Farouq Qadoumi, Arafat’s Tunis-based, hardline successor as Fatah leader, is striving to form a new center of influence with the cooperation of radical Palestinian factions (including the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leadership abroad) in order to serve as a watchdog on the elected leadership.11
Hamas and Islamic Jihad are demanding participation in the decision-making process and a proportional share in the new Palestinian regime. They are unwilling to merely join the PLO umbrella. Instead, they seek power through new Palestinian parliamentary elections. This stand was the basis for their call to revise the election law to change from a regional to a proportional electoral system, which would give an advantage to the Islamic movements. In the meantime, both Islamic organizations have renewed their call for the establishment of a united national leadership which will serve as the supreme source of legitimacy for the Palestinian people.12 Abu Mazen appears ready to accept them; he told Newsweek: “They want to participate in the parliamentary elections. I said yes, why not? They want to participate in the leadership. I said OK.”13 The more that Abu Mazan embraces these militant Islamic groups, the more he legitimizes them and undercuts his own position in the long term.
The Palestinian terrorist infrastructure has thrived and expanded over the last four years. Putting the terrorist genie back inside the bottle may not be possible under current circumstances. One solution discussed during the period when Abu Mazen served as PA prime minister was the absorption of terrorist operatives into a new national Palestinian army. Should this proposal be adopted in the post-Arafat PA, it would leave much of the terrorist infrastructure intact – in violation of the first stage of the Roadmap. It is not surprising that Abu Mazen told Newsweek: “We fought Hamas in 1996. Now things have changed. We have to deal with them delicately.”14
The Palestinian security forces’ deep weaknesses will affect the viability of the new leadership, which lacks a reliable source of power to effectively enforce law and order and combat the terrorist infrastructure. This is particularly true in the West Bank since Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, but may not apply fully to the Gaza Strip, where Israeli military operations have been of a more limited nature.
Given its fragility, the new Palestinian leadership’s agenda will be focused on strengthening its political authority rather than demonstrating greater willingness to make significant political concessions in future negotiations. Indeed, Muhammad Dahlan stated on November 12 that Palestinians need time “to build a new house” following Arafat’s death, and that “a cease-fire is not the first stage” of what the Palestinians must achieve.15 Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Alla said during his visit with Abu Mazen to Cairo that the PA intention to “settle the issue of carrying weapons [in public] does not mean ceasing the resistance. The resistance will prevail as long as the occupation [exists]. Its nature will be determined by the [Palestinian] leadership and the circumstances of each stage.”16
Abu Mazen’s Commitment to the Arafat Legacy
Furthermore, Abu Mazen has repeatedly emphasized his full adherence to Arafat’s ideology and declared that Arafat’s last address to the Palestinian Parliament (on August 18, 2004) is his political action plan.17 In his address, Arafat reiterated his traditional political concept based on the Palestinian National Council (PNC) resolutions of 1974 (the “Phased Plan”) and 1988. Arafat called for establishing an independent Palestinian state beside Israel, but at the same time underscored the Palestinian commitment to their “rights and dreams” (in the context of the refugee problem) and that they “will be in a state of ribat till Judgment Day.” (Ribat is an Islamic concept that expresses the preparations of the Islamic army for jihad against an enemy, and whose objective is to awe or terrify one’s adversary.)18
The Palestinian elections, and their timing, are critical for Abu Mazen in his attempt to gain the necessary legitimacy as Arafat’s successor. If they are postponed, the forces undermining Abu Mazen might prevail, for a delay in the elections will supply the opposition with extra time to organize its ranks and endanger the very existence of the new leadership. Abu Mazen, more than ever, needs international and Arab support to put the peace process back on track. He will need such backing as well for implementing the Palestinian commitment to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure in accordance with the Roadmap. But there is clearly a growing contradiction between the determination of the U.S. and the EU to move quickly with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the degree to which the Palestinians have the self-confidence and inner stability to become fully engaged as negotiating partners.
Israeli Policy Options
The greatest burden to help the Palestinian Authority will be put on Israel’s shoulders. Prevailing assessments foresee increasing international pressure on the Israeli government to facilitate Palestinian reforms and build an acceptable political partner. In formulating its updated policy after Arafat’s era, Israel should:
Demonstrate a supportive approach by backing the U.S. initiative to resume the peace process after stabilizing the new Palestinian central government, to begin with free elections.
Preserve the validity of the interim agreements with the PA and insist on implementing the Roadmap with all its components and conditioned stages as the only prevailing political plan. Israel should insist on the implementation of Palestinian commitments to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and cease all expressions of incitement. The Palestinian justification of “resistance,” a well-known code-name for the armed struggle, should be ruled out.
Continue to carry out the disengagement plan, but not rule out coordination with the PA, which could be used to extract Palestinian commitments regarding security aspects.
Oppose possible international attempts to initiate an imposed agreement on all parties or the establishment of a temporary Palestinian state before the PA has completely dismantled the terrorist infrastructure. President Bush wrote to Prime Minister Sharon on April 14, 2004, that the U.S. remains committed to the president’s June 24, 2002, vision of a two-state solution “and to its implementation as described in the Roadmap.” Bush added that “the United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan.”
Support the pragmatic Palestinian leadership and its authority in order to prevent political chaos in the PA, but at the same time avoid a “bear hug” that might stain that leadership as “collaborators” with Israel.
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3. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1098520961465; http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/492454.html
5. http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/news/2004-11/13/article08.shtml; http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/news/2004-11/18/article02.shtml; http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/news/2004-11/16/article02.shtml
13. Lally Weymouth, “Interview with Abu Mazen” Newsweek, December 6, 2004; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6595162/site/newsweek/
15. “Gaza Strongman Says Peace is Not First Priority”; http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=3748689
16. Al-Hayat al-Jadida (PA), November 29, 2004. In an interview with the daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (March 9, 2003), Abu Mazen argued that the Palestinian “right” of “resistance” also includes the use of arms. Abu Mazen said: “It is our right to resist. The intifada must continue and it is the right of the Palestinian people to resist and use all possible means in order to defend its presence and existence. I add and say that if the Israelis come to your land in order to erect a settlement, then it is your right to defend what is yours.” When he was asked, “Including using arms?” he answered, “All means and arms as long as they are coming to your home, as this is the right to resist. The restriction applies only to ‘Shahada-seeking’ [suicide] operations and going out to attack in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. There is no justification to go out [of the territories] to fight the army.”” http://www.imra.org.il/story.php3?id=16073
17. Al-Ayyam (PA), November 14, 2004; http://www.palestine-pmc.com/details.asp?cat=1&id=733
18. http://www.mic-pal.info/statementprint.asp?id=897. On Arafat’s “peace of the brave” concept, see http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief3-32.htm
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Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Halevi is a researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam. He is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the IDF.