Betting on Abu-Mazen…To Lose

The “road map” has been unfurled at last, its destination a independent Palestine by 2005. So why are so many Israeli government hawks walking around with smiles on their faces? The war in Iraq may be one big reason, the newfound sense among rightists that the Middle East can be made over by force of will, force of arms, and force of example. Another possibility is rooted in the gambling instincts of George Bush and Ariel Sharon, who may well be betting heavily on new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen – to lose.

The road map, a now-rare diplomatic collaboration of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, was formally presented Wednesday to the eleventh prime minister of Israel and the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. On the face of it, rightists in Israeli officialdom should be anxious. The Bush administration, with a robust push from Britain’s Tony Blair, has pledged to vigorously pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace through cooperation and mutual compromise. The plan speaks of a phased approach, leading with political and procedural reform of the Palestinian Authority and PA efforts to quell attacks on Israelis, to be matched by broad Israeli military withdrawals from areas re-occupied during the Intifada, and the institution of a freeze on new settlement activity – this last a concept particularly odious to hardline Israeli officials.

So why are these people smiling? The mood elevation stems from clear channels of communication with Washington, and the signals they are receiving from the White House and Capitol Hill, argues Haaretz commentator Akiva Eldar: “The message that they are getting now, is that the Rumsfeld-Richard Perle school of thought is now in charge, people who were against the Oslo peace process, people who don’t trust the Palestinians, people who feel that after what they did in Iraq, the Palestinians must now go after and crack down hard on the Islamists, the radicals, the terrorists – something the Palestinians may be unable to accomplish,” Eldar says, adding of the neoconservative-oriented U.S. officials, “These are people who are against any conciliation.” In their interpretation of the road map, Sharon need not make a single move until the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated that it is putting up a significant battle against the militants in its midst. Moreover, “they know that Sharon has raised the required threshhold to so high a level that it is unrealistic to believe any Palestinian could reach it.”

Israel is soon to hand Abu Mazen’s security authorities its lists of wanted militants, along with a demand that the fugitives be put behind bars for lengthy terms – a sharp contrast from Arafat’s rule, during which the PA Chairman’s men leaked the lists to give fugitives time to go underground rather than be seized. Those wanted men who actually were taken into custody were, in many cases, released before long – a system Israel was swift to dub the revolving door.

But hawks can allow themselves to breath easy in the face of possible future demands for concessions, Eldar maintains.

“They have every reason to expect that the vicious circle of terrorism, retaliation, and targeted killings will simply go on,” he says, adding that newly appointed senior PA security official Muhammad Dahlan lacks the power to break the cycle even in his native Gaza, where the PA police apparatus was not wholly pulverized by Israel, as it was in the West Bank.

As if to prove their point, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the fierce, wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas, lost no time Wednesday in dismissing the road map and vowing no let-up in attacks by the militant Islamic group, which has sworn to blast the Jewish state entirely off the map of the Middle East.

“The road map aims to assure security for Israel at the expense of the security of our people,” Yassin said in Gaza City. “It is a plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause. It is rejected by us.”

There is also ample reason to believe that the process of instituting PA reforms – sabotaged by Arafat at every turn – has itself already done significant damage to Abu Mazen’s standing and his ability to seek an end to terror attacks.

True to form, Arafat clearly relished the repercussions of opposing Abu Mazen as long as possible in the near-operatic wrangling over a new cabinet. Arafat’s refusal brought him rafts of telephone calls from world figures, and direct arm-twisting from a personal envoy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Like a recalcitrant child for whom scolding and cajoling is better than no attention at all, Arafat had re-established his own relevancy, if only for a night, and at Abu Mazen’s expense. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the international intervention sapped the new prime minister’s credibility as an independent leader. The American administration, ever mindful of a do-or-die election next year, wants no part of being embarrassed by Abu Mazen’s PA, as previous administrations were embarassed by Arafat’s, Eldar says. Washington also has little trust that Abu Mazen has the strength to deliver on the issues that count, just as the White House has scant interest in demanding that Israel make concessions like wholesale troop pullbacks, only to be hit by fresh waves of suicide bombings. In sum, Sharon is betting on Abu Mazen to fail.

What’s in it for Sharon? Eldar believes that the Israeli leader quietly but genuinely believes what Israeli ultra-hawks like Likud cabinet minister Uzi Landau and American neocons like Richard Perle are pleased to say out loud: that everything connected with Oslo must go – up to and including the whole of the Palestinian Authority. Because the road map is at heart a return to many of the aspects of Oslo and its offshoot the Peres-Abu Ala plan, even with a similar cast of characters, the hawks reject its very basis. As in U.S. neocon recommendations to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, “They reject the principle of land for peace. They believe that Israeli-Palestinian military cooperation doesn’t work. They believe in peace by force, by regime change. They believe that the victory in Iraq proved that they were right, that the way to deal with terrorism is simply by force.”

At the end of the day, “If ‘Bush comes to shove’ and the administration must decide whether to crack down on Sharon or on Abu Mazen, it’s very clear what they are going to do.” What, then, is Sharon’s solution to the conflict? A senior security official recently told Eldar of a conversation with Sharon, in which the prime minister said Israel must stick to its guns for the next 30 years, at which time alternative technologies will reduce the need for oil, thus sapping Arab influence on Europe and the world. Many in the Bush administration have a similar position, believing that if you have enough power and will, there is no need to concede. Eldar says that the Israeli stand-pat faction has been much encouraged by the growing list of U.S. senators and members of Congress that support the Sharon formula, a whole-hearted acceptance of the vaguely worded “Bush vision” enunciated in a June speech, alongside grimly qualified reservations over the road map.

“All Sharon has to do, at this point, is to hold on until the beginning of the election year,” Eldar concludes. For his part, Bush, ever mindful of the Jewish vote, can also discreetly bet on Abu Mazen to lose. If the scenario plays out as neocons hope, he can appear to have a peace process going, but will have no need to pressure Israel into concessions.

“Then Bush can turn around and tell the Europeans, the Egyptians and the Saudis, ‘I did my job. I’ve accepted the road map, I’ve turned my back on the Israeli demands for revisions to the plan, now it’s up to you to deliver your Palestinian friends.'” In any case, Eldar says, “someone will always provide him with a terrorist attack, so he can say, ‘What do you expect me to do now?'”

BRADLEY BURSTON writes for Ha’aretz.