Gulf News, Opinion (UAE)
THE SHARON-ABU MAZEN
'BATTLE OF WILLS'
14 January 2005
World leaders and numerous commentators have
hailed the victory of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)
in the Palestinian elections of January 9 as a
"victory for peace". That judgment is far too
optimistic. These are early days.
The elections merely endorsed the Palestinians'
choice of a champion to take on Israel's Ariel
Sharon in the coming battle of wills, which is
likely to be as ruthless and guileful as any in
the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Like two aged Sumo wrestlers, Abu Mazen, 69, and
Ariel Sharon, 77, are circling each other before
coming to grips in what will certainly be the
last great contest of their respective careers.
Before entering the ring, they can afford to
exchange pleasantries and even strike some deals
because, in the short run, their goals are
complementary. But their longer term goals are
totally at variance with one another.
Sharon's short-term aims are well known. Two, in
particular, have been widely publicised. First,
he wants to put a stop to Palestinian attacks
The suicide bombers and the inaccurate home-made
Qassem rockets have had a psychological and
political effect in Israel far in excess of the
actual damage they inflict. They have dented
Sharon's reputation as 'Mr Security', undermined
morale, and punctured Israel's pretensions as the
Middle East superpower. For Sharon, they have
Despite using every devastating weapon in his
armoury, Sharon has failed over the past four
years to force the Palestinians into
unconditional surrender. Indeed, many Palestinian
militants, driven by desperation, want to keep up
So, Sharon is now ready to resume "security
cooperation" with Abu Mazen shorthand for helping
him clamp down on Hamas and other militants.
In other words, to win security for Israelis he
is now prepared to seek help from a Palestinian
"partner", and will pay the price releasing some
prisoners, removing some check-points, permitting
armed Palestinian security agents to patrol
Palestinian cities, allowing Palestinians to
breathe just a little.
Sharon's second short-term goal is to implement
his Gaza disengagement plan, which he sees as
essential for the fulfilment of his Zionist
programme. He knows that the presence in Gaza of
8,000 affluent Israeli colonists in a sea of 1.3
million dirt-poor Palestinians is untenable.
Worse still, it threatens Israel's expansionist
plans on the West Bank. Although the colonists
and other messianic-nationalists cry traitor and
threaten civil disobedience, even actual violence
against the state, Sharon knows he must face them
down, and is fully prepared to do so.
To implement disengagement, he has risked a split
in the Likud, brought Labour into his coalition
and is ready to coordinate the withdrawal from
Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. This last,
to his way of thinking, is an important
He had wanted disengagement to be purely
"unilateral" that is to say without any hint that
this might signal the start of negotiations with
the Palestinians or confer any role on them.
Now, on this issue also, he is ready to
coordinate with a Palestinian "partner" a more
conciliatory stance which will please the United
States, the Europeans, Egypt and, more
particularly from Sharon's point of view, Rabbi
Ovadia Yossef, head of the ultra-orthodox Shass
party, who has demanded a negotiated withdrawal
from Gaza, and whose eleven Knesset members
Sharon would like to draw into his shaky
As the new president of the Palestinian
Authority, Abu Mazen's short-term aims are
modest. He wants above all to improve the
intolerable conditions under which the
Palestinians have been forced to live.
To get Sharon to ease up - and to win
international support - Abu Mazen has pledged to
end the "chaos of arms", to put order in the
"Palestinian house", to unify the myriad security
services, and to talk the militants into ending
their "armed intifada", at least for the time
In other words, he wants the Palestinians to
project an image of responsibility, non-violence
and democracy, and to be accepted as partners in
Israel and internationally. He has already been
rewarded by talk of a possible visit to the White
Abu Mazen has long believed that using arms
against a vastly stronger Israel was
self-defeating and that change in Israel could
come only from the inside.
He has been engaged in a quiet dialogue with the
Israeli peace camp, and with men on the Left like
Yosi Beilin, for decades. He does not believe
that the Palestinians will ever get justice from
Sharon and the Israeli Right wing.
An Israeli writer once wrote that Sharon's
strategic aims were to conquer the West Bank and
prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. "The
rest," he said, "was tactics."
This is undoubtedly still true. Sharon holds out
no prospect of any political horizon beyond Gaza
disengagement and some measure of security
cooperation with the Palestinians.
As Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair recently
learned when he tried to interest Sharon in his
international conference in London, the Israeli
leader refused to contemplate negotiations on
'final status' issues.
Instead he talks vaguely of 'arrangements' for
long-term Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, which
most observers interpret as expanding colonies,
completing the security wall, herding
Palestinians into their seven main towns where,
Sharon no doubt hopes, their lives will be so
difficult that many will choose to emigrate.
In other words, his project is to divide the West
Bank, with Israel securing the lion's share. At
the end of the day, the 'Jordan option' might be
revived, in that a Palestinian rump might be
attached to the Hashemite kingdom.
Abu Mazen's long-term vision is, of course, very
different. His aim is an independent Palestinian
state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and a
fair resolution of the refugee problem.
He wants a serious negotiation to resolve the
conflict once and for all. He is looking beyond
Sharon to a possible evolution of Israeli
opinion. He is eight years younger than Sharon
which, in politics, is a long time.
Once Gaza disengagement is complete, once the
diehard colonists have been defeated, once the
Left in Israel regroups, once a majority of
Israelis are reassured by a period of calm and
come to understand that their long-term security
lies in good relations with a peaceful,
prosperous and democratic Palestine, then he
believes independent statehood in the West Bank
and Gaza can become a reality.
President Bush (and the Likudniks in his
administration) must also understand that, if
they fail to promote such a political horizon, if
they miss this chance, if they allow Sharon to
dictate terms, then the third intifada will
inevitably break out and it risks being far more
devastating for Israel and the United States than