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The New Abu Mazen?


merican mediator George Mitchell is again en route to the Middle East in a mission to jumpstart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Mitchell is trying to keep his grip on the rope that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu grudgingly let loose in November 2009, when he announced a ten-month settlement freeze. This was a partial concession to the American demand—eagerly espoused by PA President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas)—for a total freeze as a precondition of renewed peace talks. For 16 years the talks had chugged along in fits and starts, with occasional lurches backward, while Israel smoothly went on building settlements. The American demand came when it was clear to all that talks serve Israel as camouflage for construction: In 1993, the year of the Oslo Accords, there were 264,400 settlers in the West Bank (including the occupied part of Jerusalem), and in 2007: 466, 170. (Source.)

Netanyahu's announcement raised questions. Abu Mazen holds that because the freeze does not include East Jerusalem, going back to the table would be tantamount to recognizing Israel's annexation of that area. Many accusations have been leveled against U.S. President Barack Obama for making the freeze a condition for negotiations. Once he did so, say the critics, there was no way that the Palestinians would agree to less. The American precondition put Abu Mazen high up on a tree from which it is hard to descend. Meanwhile, after several rounds of diplomatic fisticuffs with Israel, the Americans have retreated from their demand, and it looks like they're settling for Netanyahu's limited freeze. But Abu Mazen sticks to his guns, proclaiming from every platform that he will not resume talks until the freeze includes East Jerusalem.

Hoping that new negotiations might soften the anti-Israel feeling that has been spreading through the world since its war on Gaza, Netanyahu journeyed to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He returned encouraged. The Egyptians, for their part, sent their Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abu Gheit, to Washington, along with the Minister for Security Services, Omar Suleiman, to coordinate the process. (Suleiman had already coordinated with the Israelis.) In addition, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Sa'ud al Faisal, visited Syrian president Bashar Assad in Damascus; he also met with Mubarak, and the Palestinian issue was central to their discussions. Despite this multilateral lobbying, Abu Mazen keeps saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Abu Mazen versus Hamas

What leads Abu Mazen, the moderates' moderate, to take such a "rejectionist" stance? A hint may be found in the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, January 13, 2010; it features an article by Kifah Zbun reporting on a convention of the Fatah Central Committee, which supported Abu Mazen in conditioning negotiations on a complete settlement freeze. What's interesting is Zbun's interpretation: "The Fatah position is not surprising, especially in light of the fact that the Israeli side has not changed much in its public positions. Moreover, Fatah has learned that it gains credibility and popularity when it takes a position refusing to return to the negotiating table."

In addition, the Fatah Central Committee accuses the Hamas leadership of being responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. In particular, it denounces Sheikh Dr. Yousef al-Qaradawi, a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who ranks among the foremost Islamic authorities. Claiming that Abu Mazen supports the blockade of Gaza, Al-Qaradawi has called for his death by stoning. Fatah's criticism, in short, isn't directed only at Israel.

By sticking to a hard line, in short, Abu Mazen has succeeded in maneuvering both Hamas and the Israeli right wing into tight corners. Having announced his non-candidacy in the next PA elections, he has hardened his stance against Netanyahu, deepened the isolation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, and playing hard-to-get with the international community.

Obama under fire

The negotiations to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are stalled, given Israel's refusal to accept the demands of Hamas; Egypt is sinking an iron wall into the earth to stop the smuggling through tunnels from Sinai to Gaza; and last but not least, criticism of Hamas is rising because of its dependence on Iran. During Mashal's last visit to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Sa'ud al Faisal, asked him which side he supports, the Arabs or Iran. Mashal replied, "Of course the Arabs are Hamas's strategic depth."

The challenging Saudi question resulted from that country's deep involvement in a war against the Shiite tribes in northern Yemen, which are backed by Iran. Admittedly, Yemen is far from Israel, but the ongoing struggle between Israel and the PA is directly connected to the strife in Yemen, because this torn country has become an important base for al-Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula. Washington sees progress in talks between Israel and the PA as a key to strengthening America's standing in the region, as well as that of its Arab allies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Obama has declared war on extremist Islam. While sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, he is absorbing very hard blows. To mention a few: the lethal attack by a Palestinian-American soldier at Fort Hood in Texas; in Afghanistan, the killing of eight CIA agents by a double-agent suicide bomber loyal to al-Qaeda; and of course the failed attempt by a Nigerian extremist, trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen, to blow up an American plane. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen have all become a theater of war, and they are causing big headaches in Washington.

Obama must feel the earth burning beneath his feet, but his allies are those who absorb the fire. Egypt is under a severe media attack, especially from Al Jazeera, while Hamas, in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood, is shaking the Mubarak regime. Saudi Arabia, suffering from the activities of al-Qaeda on its land, is trying to defeat the Yemenite Shiites, allies of Iran. The future of Iraq is unclear, following the expected American withdrawal. In the light of all this, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes doubly important. An agreement between the two, it is thought, will close the breach into which Iran and extremist organizations like al-Qaeda have entered. Abu Mazen's room to maneuver is narrowing by the minute. He is being asked to sacrifice the Palestinian cause for the sake of the broader Arab interest, as well as America's.

And what about Netanyahu?

Until now the talks have yielded nothing but frustration, disappointment and expansion of the settlements. After the failure of Oslo, followed by the failure of Camp David, came the second Intifada and the rise of Hamas as a crucial factor in the Paletinian reality. It won the elections of 2006 and took over Gaza in 2007. If talks between the PA and Israel were to fail a third time, this would be a point of no return. The fear of yet another such failure is one of the factors keeping both sides away from the negotiating table.

If Abu Mazen does finally agree to resume negotiations nonetheless, this will challenge Netanyahu: if he wants to reach an agreement, he will have to change the composition of his government. He will have to confront the settlers, who for their part proclaim publicly that the laws of the Torah are above the State's. Until now no leader has dared to confront the hard core of West Bank settlers, and it is doubtful that Netanyahu will be the one to try. His intentions are unclear, but meanwhile he acts as if the peace of his coalition trumps peace in the region.

Abu Mazen knows this well. For years he cooperated with Israel and got nothing. He knows that in resuming the talks he will draw fire from every corner, because it's altogether uncertain that Israel is ready for peace. He also knows that the borders proposed for the Palestinian state will be based on those of 1967, but that these borders will not be open, and that locked behind the separation wall, the state will have no real sovereignty. Such is Netanyahu's two-state vision. After 40 years of occupation, it is extremely far from the dreams of the Palestinians. The future presents many questions: What will become of Gaza? What will happen in the West Bank after Israel withdraws from most of it? Above all, what will happen when the Palestinian people discovers that its state amounts to expanded autonomy with continuing dependence on Israel?

The conflict that grips our region today is not impossible to resolve. On the contrary, the solution has long been clear, but President Obama has no intention, apparently, to adopt it. As long as his corrupt allies stay in power—Karzai in Afghanistan, Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdallah Salah in Yemen, the Abdallahs, Saudi and Jordanian—extremist Islam will go on strengthening itself among the poor. As long as Israel continues to be nurtured as a regional power occupying another people, extremist Islam will continue to win the hearts of many, and Obama will lose in the war against terror. Extremist Islam now threatens the region and the world, but it was the US that contributed to its growth, that adopted it, arming it against the Soviet Union, and that today supplies the peoples of the area with ever more reasons to join it. That's not how to achieve peace, and it's not how to defeat terrorism. "end"

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