Ever since Yasser Arafat’s death, there has been a certain air of anticipation about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace or at least something resembling a settlement, even a formal cease-fire, that will end the current relatively active hostilities. If Arafat himself was the major obstacle to negotiations, as somebody neither the Israeli government nor the Bush administration would talk to anymore, perhaps his demise and replacement would put a more amenable potential negotiating partner at the head of the Palestinian Authority.
The emergence of longtime Arafat aide Mahmoud Abbas as the leading candidate in Palestinian Authority elections scheduled for Sunday has done only a little to dampen enthusiasm for the possibility of pulling the "road map" out of the glove compartment once more. He was one of Arafat’s longtime top aides, and one who apparently never raised serious objections to Arafat policies. But according to Dennis Ross’ new book, he was supposedly more conciliatory at the Camp David meeting that blew up toward the end of the Clinton administration. When he was prime minister, from April to September 2003, he had promised to curb violence in pursuit of the U.S. "road map," but militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad refused to lay down their arms, and Arafat kept all branches of the PA security forces there are nine different security agencies, one of the big governance problems firmly under his own control, never relinquishing effective power to a prime minister.
Whether it’s true or not, Abbas is widely viewed as a relative moderate with whom the Israelis and Americans believe they can do business. During the campaign, however, he hasn’t always talked that way.
To be sure, in December he told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asarq al-Awsat that "the use of arms has been damaging and should end." That position was rejected immediately, however, by Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas. And a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 49 percent of Palestinians supported armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel down from 54 percent in September, but still a significant slice of the electorate, a slice to which a candidate who wanted to win would have to appeal.
So more recently, Abbas promised Palestinian refugees they would be able to return to their homeland eventually a reference to a "right of return" to Israel proper that Israel is unlikely to accept at any time. And Tuesday, in condemning an Israeli tank attack in northern Gaza retaliatory, according to the Israelis he referred to Israel as "the Zionist enemy."
According to experts I talked to, Abbas is simply reflecting the same realities that faced Yasser Arafat. "Abbas does not have an independent following of his own," Leon Hadar, author of the forthcoming book Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East and a former Jerusalem Post United Nations correspondent, told me. "Therefore he can’t afford to alienate the more militant elements of the electorate."
Many have hoped that the death of Arafat would create a golden opportunity for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unfortunately, many of the conditions that had made peace unlikely any time soon remain in place.
Corruption an Issue
Seth Jones, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation who teaches at Georgetown University, notes that the Palestinian Authority has been seen as notably corrupt for at least a decade, and he believes Mr. Abbas has a chance to make some fundamental reforms that could improve governance in the territories. He is more cautious about chances to resurrect peace talks with Israel.
Mr. Jones, who recently published an interesting piece on the importance of establishing a semblance of law and order in the Palestinian territories, also notes that much will depend on Israeli attitudes. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided that the Gaza strip is not worth keeping, but issues surrounding West Bank settlements will continue to be contentious.
It is possible that a majority of Israelis see the occupation of most of the West Bank Israeli settlements as unsustainable over the long run, Mr. Jones told me. But when the next suicide attack happens within Israel which Mr. Jones believes is an inevitability most Israelis will want to retaliate, and that will mean at least temporary occupation of some West Bank cities.
Interestingly, that coincides with some analysis by William Safire, who is apparently able to reach the Israeli prime minister by phone at will and might as well be an adjunct of the Israeli Likud Party, but is yet capable of reasonably dispassionate analysis. He notes that "ultras" among the rabbinate oppose withdrawal from Gaza and "talk of advising Israeli soldiers to refuse to obey orders to eject settlers who refuse relocation from Gaza."
While this sentiment may represent a small slice of Israeli public opinion, it is a disproportionately influential slice. It suggests that after almost five years of the current Intifada, years that have virtually decimated the Israeli peace movement and turned Israeli public opinion significantly rightward, Israelis may not be on the verge of eagerness for negotiation with the emerging leadership of the Palestinian authority.
Test on Attacks
As for Mahmoud Abbas, assuming he is elected, his test will come when militant groups pull off a serious attack perhaps during Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, perhaps in downtown Jerusalem. Seth Jones considers such an attack despite the safety some Israelis believe they have bought by building that massive wall as close to inevitable as anything is in this life.
In the event of such an attack, the Israelis will expect Abbas to crack down on the militants. Will he be able to do so? Will the potential benefits from a peace settlement be sufficient incentive for him to risk unpopularity among a significant number of Palestinians?
Ivan Eland, head of the Independent Institute’s Center for Peace and Liberty and author of The Empire Has No Clothes, put it succinctly: "Peace will become possible when sufficient war-weariness sets in on both sides and the people let their leaders know they’ve had enough," he told us. He thinks that day hasn’t come, and the problem is more one of intractable attitudes than intractable issues.
So significant elements on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide remain embittered. And it’s an embitterment made more intense by the failure of the Oslo peace process, more cynical about the next possible round of negotiations. "Those outside of Israel and Palestine often think they see the end of violence around the corner, and on paper it’s not that difficult to come up with a compromise that both sides should be able to agree on," Ivan Eland told me. "But as often as not, expressions of optimism by outsiders are followed rather quickly by a new incident of violence."
One can certainly hope Mahmoud Abbas turns out to be the key to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Leon Hadar convinced me some years ago that the best course for the United States would be to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of any number of regional conflicts tragic, but not of central strategic importance and not especially amenable to resolution by the United States, which long ago ceased to be viewed as an "honest broker" by Arabs and Palestinians. We might be able to help with details once genuine war-weariness sets in and the two sides are really close to an agreement, but we can’t "force" an agreement.
One always hopes for the best, but I hope the U.S. government does not invest significantly in the possibility of ironing out that wrinkled road map until possibilities become significantly more concrete.