Abu-Mazen will fall before the end of October–this conviction is gaining ground in leading Palestinian circles.
This forecast is based on the belief that Abu-Mazen will not get anything, neither from the Americans nor from Sharon. No release for most of the prisoners, no complete removal of the checkpoints inside the Palestinian territories, no stop to the building of the wall, no total withdrawal of the army from Palestinian towns, no lifting of the blockade on President Arafat, no freeze of the settlements, no dismantling of the settlement outposts that were put up in the last two and a half years (as stipulated by the Road Map).
If they had wanted to “help Abu-Mazen”, to quote the formula current in Washington, they would have fulfilled at least some of these demands. But nothing of the sort has happened. The well publicized release of a handful of prisoners, most of whom where due to be released anyhow, only highlighted the absence of goodwill and increased the anger.
Abu-Mazen became Prime Minister because the Americans demanded it. The Palestinians hoped that the Americans would give him things that they were unwilling to grant Yasser Arafat. This would have meant the US exerting real pressure on Sharon in order to compel him to deliver the goods. This has not happened. The terrible conditions of life in the occupied territories have not improved. In some places they have even deteriorated.
Abu-Mazen does not enjoy wide public support. Formally, he represents the ruling party, Fatah, but even there his standing is problematical. The party is devoted to Yasser Arafat , and Abu-Mazen’s political existence depends on support from Arafat.
In a recent Palestinian popularity poll, Abu-Mazen received 2% of the votes. Arafat tops the list, of course. After him comes Mustafa Barghouti, who has set up a large-scale aid network for the suffering population. The third place was taken by Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the Fatah cadres, who is standing trial in Israel. Abu-Mazen was near the bottom.
Sharon could have saved Abu-Mazen if he had wanted to. But here, too, it is advisable to ignore what Sharon says and to pay attention to what he does: undermining Abu Mazen. He is worried by the respect paid to Abu-Mazen by the White House and Congress, fearing that American support of Israel might shrink from 100% to a mere 95%.
The fall of Abu-Mazen in a vote of the Palestinian Legislative Council will be very convenient for Sharon. He believes that it will kill the Road Map, and with it the demands to stop the building of the wall, dismantle the outposts and freeze the settlements.
In this matter, too, Sharon enjoys the support of the army command, which opposes the Hudna (truce) and is longing for the renewal of the violence. As always, the army commanders believe that victory is just around the corner and that Palestinian resistance is on the verge of collapse. All that is needed is one last decisive blow.
Will the hopes of Sharon and Co. regarding America come true? That depends on who succeeds Abu-Mazen.
Arafat’s candidate is the Palestinian millionaire from Nablus, Munib al-Masri, the scion of a well established family, a man with widespread business interests throughout the Arab countries and the rest of the world. He is a man of proven ability, popular among the Palestinians.
Another likely candidate is the new Minister of Finance, Salaam Fayad. He, too, has established his competence. In a short time he has put the Palestinian Authority’s finances in order, eliminated much of the corruption, organized the regular payment of salaries (replacing a man carrying a suitcase full of money with direct transfer to the bank accounts of the employees.) He is well respected by the Palestinian public.
Both these candidates are acceptable to the Americans. The election of one of them as the next Prime Minister would ensure that the relations between Washington and Ramallah continue to improve.
If Abu-Mazen falls, his security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, may fall with him. He got his job because the Americans (and Sharon’s people, of course) demanded it. That has hurt his standing right from the beginning. He is a Fatah man, but not a member of the “Revolutionary Council”, the highest Fatah leadership body. The suspicion that he sees himself as Arafat’s successor does not make him more popular, either.
The long-term rival of Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, formerly the powerful chief of security on the West Bank, has recently been reconciled with Arafat, after the famous incident in which the leader boxed his ears. His standing was hurt during the reoccupation of Ramallah by the Israeli army (“Operation Defensive Shield”), when Rajoub’s headquarters was occupied and several Hamas prisoners taken, in spite of an explicit American promise that the compound would be immune from attack. Lately he has recovered from a dangerous operation and assured Arafat of his full support, but declined to accept an official position.
Like Abu-Mazen and many others, Rajoub opposes the armed intifada and advocates the idea of non-violent popular resistance. He pins his hopes on the Israeli Left and believes that the cessation of violence, and cooperation with the Israeli peace camp, will bring about a major change. The adherents of armed resistance argue, in return, that force is the only language Israel understands, and that without violence nothing at all can be achieved. The general Palestinian public wavers between these two strategic views.
At this moment, only the Americans can save Abu-Mazen. In the blockbuster film, “Saving Private Ryan”, an army unit was sent to rescue a soldier missing behind enemy lines. Now the Americans’ mission is to save Abu-Mazen from the jaws of Sharon.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: email@example.com.