A brief euphoria followed the Knesset’s approval of the Disengagement Plan, but now there are signs that the Israelis and the Palestinians are riding on different tracks to places other than peace. Each side is preparing, indeed, for a major change. Israeli PM Ariel Sharon girds himself for a confrontation with tens of thousands of right-wing settlers, his godchildren. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), in preparing reforms, confronts not only Hamas, but also the power-hungry younger generation within his own Fatah. Yet despite the preparations for change, it is not clear on either side what change is being prepared for.
Let us start with Sharon, for the fate of Abu Mazen will depend largely on what he does. Will there be a sequel to disengagement, as the Americans quietly hope, along with the Europeans and Sharon’s own partners from the Israeli Left?
Sharon does not show his cards, but his behavior, starting with his visit on April 11 at the ranch of US President George W. Bush, does not bode well. Here are some indicators:
The latest thorn is the government’s decision to recognize the college at Ariel, a West Bank settlement-city, as a university. This college is an offshoot of Bar Ilan University. We may interpret the decision as nose-thumbing at British academics, who decided to boycott Bar Ilan because of its connection with the West Bank college. But beyond that, this is a harbinger for the future. In the words of Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: “It’s important to establish a university at Ariel in order to bring home the point that the Ariel bloc will forever belong to Israel.” True, we needn’t take a politician too seriously when he says “forever,” but the timing is significant. Sharon sends a soothing message to the settlers, while flexing his muscles toward the international community and the Palestinians.
But why should he be so concerned to correct the conciliatory, even dovish impression he created on announcing disengagement? Perhaps he has second thoughts. The Disengagement Plan was conceived as punishment for the Palestinians, during the twilight of Yasser Arafat’s rule when he was penned up in the Muqata’a. Negotiations were frozen. There was internal pressure for progress from former Shin Beth heads, refusenik officers, even fighter pilots. He had to get something moving. Unilateral disengagement would enable him, besides, to take unilateral steps of another sort in the West Bank. As we put it in the last issue: unilateral give, unilateral take.
Arafat’s death, and Abu Mazen’s readiness to cooperate with Sharon in the disengagement process, had the effect of reshuffling the deck. For behold, if suddenly a partner appears, then why give Gaza for free? As long as he could keep it unilateral, Sharon didn’t have to take the other side into account. In short, he has gotten himself into a strange sort of porridge. One minute he complains that there isn’t any partner, but as soon as one appears, he sets about undermining him.
Former adviser at the US State Department, Aaron David Miller, said on April 27, “Abu Mazen may well have the intentions to do a deal with Israel, but he lacks the capabilities. The prime minister of Israel, Mr. Sharon, may well have the capabilities, I believe he does have the capabilities, but he lacks the intention.”
Among pundits a consensus has formed: disengagement will be followed by a year of “nothing doing,” until Israel holds its scheduled elections at the end of 2006. That will be a very long year for Abu Mazen. The lack of further political progress will likely prove his undoing.
With Egypt’s help he has managed to create a degree of calm, as evinced by the decline in suicide bombings and Kassam rockets. He takes credit for bringing Hamas into the mainstream Palestinian political arena. Hamas’s future participation in parliament, he hopes, will impel it to disband its military wing.
The Palestinians are disappointed with Israel’s latest actions. A steady stream of incitement against Abu Mazen pours from Sharon’s office. Mamduh Nofal, a prominent political pundit (once a Palestinian leftist, now closer to the center), has written on the topic in Al-Hayyat (May 2, 2005). Sharon’s negative stance toward Abu Mazen, he says, goes beyond a merely tactical attempt to tilt Bush against him before he arrives in Washington. It also goes beyond an attempt to pressure the Palestinian leader to fight terrorism. Sharon’s negativity, Nofal believes, is strategic. While talking peace, the Israeli PM builds a wall, confiscates land and expands the West Bank settlements. He refuses to fulfill the understandings reached at Sharm al-Sheikh. He told Bush that it is only a matter of time until Abu Mazen falls. “This speech,” writes Nofal, “is reminiscent of an earlier one that talked about getting rid of Arafat.” The Palestinian street believes that Bush and the Israeli Left are far too busy supporting Sharon for his “courageous step” in leaving Gaza, while indifferent to the fate of Abu Mazen.
The latter’s internal problems are no less difficult than Sharon’s with the settlers. Hamas has agreed to stay quiet, it appears, until Israel disengages from Gaza in August. It wants to preserve its close connection with the Palestinian street, which is weary of the Intifada. On the other hand, elections are scheduled on July 17 for the Palestinian parliament, and Hamas, for the first time, will field candidates. It will take a while until the organization accustoms itself to the language of the legislature rather than that of the mosques – or the guns. It won’t hurry to assume a major role in decision-making, because it has no ideological base for negotiating with Israel and the US. Nevertheless, Hamas will be keeping its foot near the brakes. At any moment it can stop Abu Mazen if he goes too far.
The Palestinian President’s immediate problems are with pressure groups inside Fatah, his own faction. They demand that he retire the Old Guard of the PLO (the people who came with Arafat from Tunis in 1994), and give more power to the younger Fatah stalwarts who were present here during the first Intifada. This demand has no connection to abilities or governing skills. It has to do, rather, with amassing power, jobs and money. But Abu Mazen has no choice. One reason for the outbreak of the second Intifada, he knows, was the frustration of these same grass-roots people, who felt that Arafat had let them down.
Given Israeli recalcitrance and Palestinian weakness, it seems unlikely that the US will be able to advance a political process. When Bush took the reckless position that Israel could keep the settlement blocs in the framework of a permanent agreement, he jettisoned, in effect, any Palestinian hope for a fair conclusion. He spreads empty talk about bringing democracy to the Arab world. He prides himself on helping the Lebanese evict Syria, but he cannot get his own country out of Iraq nor Israel out of the West Bank. There were elections in Iraq! There will be elections in the Palestinian territories! But what use are elections if the elected cannot make decisions in a State that is sovereign and free? Elections alone do not a democracy make. There has to be something real to get elected to.
No side, it seems, has learned the lessons of the first and second Intifadas. Israel refuses to leave the West Bank. In the 38th year of Occupation, the region’s “only democracy” rules as absolute despot over four million people. Breeding their hatred, it continues to gamble with its own people’s lives. The Palestinian leadership, for its part, continues to entrust its people’s fate to a declining empire, led by a fundamentalist servant of oil tycoons. Bush, Sharon and Abu Mazen: none is both strong enough and willing enough to confront the deep sources of the conflict. There is nothing on the horizon, at this time, to stop Round Three.