Gulf News, Opinion (UAE)


Patrick Seale
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 against Israelis.

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 become intolerable.

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 the fight.

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 concession.

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 coalition.

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 being.

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 House.

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.

Longer-Term Impasse

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 its predecessors.

Originally published here.