PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
NEW PALESTINIAN LEADERSHIP MAY DIM HOPES FOR PEACE
If you follow the news casually, you know that there was a big power struggle in the Palestinian leadership last week. Yasser Arafat, a typical power-hungry politico, resisted a challenge from the new prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu-Mazen). Arafatís tender ego was bruised, but he finally saw reason and agreed to share power.
Thatís the way our media oversimplified a very complicated story. Egos were involved, no doubt. More importantly, though, it was a struggle between Arafatís somewhat independent stance toward Israel and Abbasí preference for acquiescent compromise. According to renowned Israeli analyst Uri Avnery, Abbas and his followers "have no solid base among their own people, but do have connections with powerful players, most importantly the United States and Israel." They want an end to armed struggle, believing that "the Palestinians can achieve more in negotiations with the U.S. and in a political process with Israel."
The U.S., Britain, and Israel played a key role in Abbasí rise to power. Lebanonís Daily Star reported that Arafat accepted the power-sharing deal only "under massive international pressure." A Palestinian official told the Washington Post, "By having the Americans and European Union insisting that [Abbas] was the only acceptable leader, it made him look like their write-in candidate." The appearance may well be the reality.
George W. Bush offered the reward for acquiescence in a speech last month: he would release his long awaited "road map" for peace only when Abbas became prime minister. Bush knows that the Israelis will not even discuss the "road map" until they have a compliant negotiating partner in place of Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, who has shunned Arafat, says he will be glad to meet with Abbas as soon as his appointment is confirmed. As the Daily Star said, "The step-down by Arafat was likely to be seen by the international community as a first stage in sidelining the veteran leader."
Some Palestinians hope their two leaders will work out a plan for sharing governance, which would keep Arafat an active player. But Avnery is skeptical. He asks: "What will happen to the armed organizations, and who will control the security forces? Would Abbas be prepared to risk a fratricidal war?" The question of security forces has almost provoked fratricidal war already, when Arafat and Abbas quarreled over who would head Palestinian security. Abbas demanded, and eventually got, his man: Muhammad Yusuf Dahlan.
Dahlan is apparently also the man of the U.S., Britain, and Israel. The Washington Post reported that "Arafat fielded a fusillade of urgent telephone calls from European and Arab leaders urging him to relent on Dahlan." The callers included British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Why would such luminaries bother about a Palestinian cabinet appointment? Perhaps they, and the Americans urging them on, believed they were moving the parties toward a peace settlement, which could defuse tensions created by the Iraq war. If so, they were probably mistaken.
Dahlan is a very controversial figure. The New York Times, praising him as the "Palestinian Security Ace," reported that "he has often dealt with Israeli and American officials, who hold him in high respect." To many Palestinians, though, he is more feared than respected. As head of the Palestinians' Preventive Security forces in Gaza, Dahlan was responsible for the arrest of senior Hamas leaders in 1996.
Ali Abunimah, a top Palestinian-American journalist, notes that "Dahlanís security services were the target of numerous allegations from Palestinian and international human rights organizations of serious abuses, including torture." When a Jerusalem Post reporter asked Dennis Ross, Bill Clintonís Middle East envoy, why the U.S. did not seem to care about these charges, Ross responded: "It wasnít as if the Israelis were particularly concerned about the problem."
In fact, the move against Hamas was just what the Israelis wanted, according to the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that, by accepting the Oslo Accords, Arafat essentially agreed to become Israelís "sub-contractor" in the Occupied Territories. Israeli soldiers would no longer have to brutalize Palestinians. Other Palestinians, like Dahlan, would do it for them.
Since Arafat has not been a compliant "sub-contractor," he will now be replaced by Abbas. Abunimah rightly concludes: "The vague promises of the Oslo Accords have been replaced with the vague promises of the Ďroad map.í Abbas is being promoted not because he represents the future for the Palestinians, but precisely because he represents a past." Dahlan is a central part of that past. Sharon recently told columnist William Safire that he will resume peace talks only after the new Palestinian leaders "dismantle Hamas, the Jihad, the Popular Front and the others Ö seize illegal weapons and hand them over to the U.S. for destruction." That will be Dahlanís mandate.
Hamas and the other rejectionist groups know very well what is going on. A Hamas leader told the Times that his group "won't accept a repetition of 1996. If the new government begins by working on security, the loser will be the Palestinian people." "The militant groups say they will continue with attacks, and have shown no enthusiasm for the new government, saying it was forced upon the Palestinians by the United States and other foreign governments," the Times concluded.
Avnery notes the obvious outcome for Israel: "The US and Israel demand that [Abbas] liquidate the armed organizations and confiscate their weapons, even before the Palestinians move one step towards a state of their own. This will, of course, involve a bloody internecine struggle that will fill Sharonís government with joy and consolidate its position still further."
Israel has always followed one cardinal rule in its dealings with its neighbors: keep them divided against each other. What Israeli governments have feared, beyond anything else, is a unified front against them. That may be why Israel funded the little upstart group Hamas years ago, helping it mount a major challenge to Arafatís power. When Hamas grew powerful enough, the Israelis apparently set Dahlan upon them. With Dahlan heading Palestinian security, the Israelis can expect the tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the rejectionists to grow exponentially.
Sharonís government may have even more reason for joy. In 1996, a Palestinian official told the Guardian that the Israelis were "grooming" Abbas and Dahlan to replace Arafat. Abunimah suggests that "seven years ago such fears could be dismissed as paranoia." But now "even the most level-headed observer is tempted" to see Abbasí and Dahlanís rise to power as "a conspiracy," orchestrated by Israel and the U.S.
Ziad Abu Amr, the new Palestinian minister of culture, told the Washington Post he expects Abbas and Arafat to have frequent power struggles. "There is a very ambitious Palestinian agenda," Amr said, "but there are other agendas -- American and Israeli, international and political -- and Abu Mazen is faced with a challenge of reconciling the irreconcilable." So the fratricidal war that Avnery predicts could easily become a three-way struggle.
Israeli and U.S. officials, who long ago decided that Arafat was no longer a "partner for peace," will now proclaim that they have found their partner in Abbas. They will mean that they have a Palestinian leader who wants to settle pretty much on Israelís terms.
Abbas can agree to a settlement on Israelís terms. But that will not produce a lasting peace agreement. It will only alienate the majority of Palestinians and plunge them deeper into internal conflict. As Avnery says, this will fill Sharonís government with joy and consolidate its position still further. Sharon and his government may be planning to watch, with pleasure, as the Palestinian body politic disintegrates beyond any hope of unity.
If Israelis think this will give them security by dominating the Palestinians, they are sadly mistaken. A fragmented Palestinian people will breed more resentment and more armed struggle. That may confirm the common Israeli belief that Jews will always be threatened by enemies. But it will not lead to security or peace for anyone.
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