My first impression of Abu-Mazen was of a serious, methodical, somewhat aloof introvert. He reminded me of a high-school principal, very different from Arafat, the impulsive extrovert, prone to personal gestures, exuding warmth to all around him.
I met Abu-Mazen for the first time some 28 years ago. We were secretly in Tunis to meet Yasser Arafat. There were three of us: Matti Peled, a general in the reserves, Ya’acov Arnon, a former Director General of the Treasury and I. We met Abu-Mazen first to prepare practical proposals for joint actions, to be put before the “Old Man”, as Arafat – then 54–was called.
I had first heard mention of the name Abu-Mazen nine years earlier, with my first secret contacts with senior PLO officials. They told me that the Fatah leadership had appointed a committee of three for contacts with Israelis. They were the “three Abus” (as I called them): Abu-Amar (Yasser Arafat), Abu-Iyad (Salah Halaf) and Abu-Mazen (Mahmud Abbas).
Abu-Mazen was directly responsible for the contacts that started in 1974. At the first stage, they were conducted with me personally, but, from the autumn of 1976 on, the Israeli partner was the “Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace”. The Palestinians who met us were Sa’id Hamami and Issam Sartawi–who were both murdered by the Iraqi-supported Palestinian arch-terrorist, Abu-Nidal, a mortal enemy of Arafat.
When Arafat and Abu-Mazen were both present at meetings with us, I got a clear picture of their mutual standing. The detailed discussions were conducted by Abu-Mazen, who had a good knowledge of things Israeli, but it was Arafat who, in the end, made the decisions. More than once I had the impression that the senior PLO leaders were quite content to leave to Arafat the responsibility for the courageous, dangerous and unpopular decisions that led up to the agreement with Israel.
Now there is a new situation. Arafat has agreed to appoint Abu-Mazen Prime Minister. (The very fact that the whole world, and Israel too, have welcomed the Palestinian “government” and “Prime Minister” is a big step towards the establishment of the State of Palestine. In Oslo Israel still strenuously resisted terms like “President”, “government” and “parliament” for the Palestinians.)
Abu-Mazen has taken upon himself a great responsibility vis-a-vis his own people and the world. He has put himself in a well-nigh impossible position.
Sharon & Co. demand that he first of all put an end to “terrorism” (“armed struggle” in Palestinian parlance), liquidate the “terrorist organizations” collect their arms and prevent “incitement”. Only after the successful completion of all this can real negotiations begin. Freezing the construction of settlements, of course, should not even be mentioned at this stage.
The Palestinian public, on the other hand, demands that first of all the Israeli army should leave the Palestinian towns, stopping “targeted assassinations”, settlement activity, the demolition of homes and all other acts of oppression, and start real negotiations for the establishment of the State of Palestine.
This threatens to become a deadlock.
If the US and Europe exert massive pressure on Sharon, the way they have put massive pressure on Arafat, the deadlock might be broken. The Israeli army would withdraw, the situation in the Palestinian territories would change completely, the Palestinians would be able to breathe again and Abu-Mazen would appear as a leader who had already attained a great achievement. The popularity of the extreme organizations would decline.
Even if this happened, Abu-Mazen could not dream of making mass arrests, destroying the organizations and confiscating their weapons. There is nothing the Palestinians fear more than fratricidal war. However, the pressure of Palestinian public opinion would lead, at least, to an effective armistice. Even the extreme organizations are sensitive to the attitudes of their public–if it wants quiet, there will be quiet. That has already happened in the first period after the Oslo agreement.
Let’s assume that this happens. The attacks stop almost completely (there will always be some individuals and local groups who feel they have to act on their own). The Abu-Mazen government functions well in the Palestinian towns and villages. Then what?
After the publication of the Road Map, Sharon will propose dozens of “corrections”. Even now the “map” is strongly tilted towards Sharon. While the Palestinians gave up 78% of the country in Oslo and accepted the remaining 22% for building their own state, and have declared that they want to live in peaceful co-existence with Israel, Sharon talks about “painful concessions” without spelling out what he really means.
If Sharon’s “corrections” are even partly accepted, the plan will lose most of what content it still has. Abu-Mazen will stand there with empty hands, the negotiations will stagnate as in previous rounds. Gradually, the Palestinians will be forced to the conclusion that they can achieve nothing without violence, the fighting organizations will regain the initiative and the armed struggle will resume.
Sharon and Bush will blame the Palestinians, of course. They will say that Abu-Mazen “has not delivered the goods”. The Palestinians, for their part, will say that Abu-Mazen is naive, that he has fallen into an American-Israeli trap. He will resign, Arafat’s prestige will rise to new heights.
The next chapter can be foreseen. The Christian fundamentalists and Zionist neo-cons, who control Washington at this time, will demand that Sharon be given a free hand. The Palestinians will embark on the third intifada, more extreme than the two before. Blood and fire and columns of smoke.
It could be different. For example: the US stops treating the Quartet with contempt, pressure is put on Sharon, Bush is not reelected, the negotiations bear fruit, the peace camp wins in Israel, the Palestinian state is founded in peace.
In the Holy Land, miracles have happened before.
But in the meantime, don’t envy Abu-Mazen.