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Optimism Greets Post-arafat Era, but Obstacles to Progress Remain

The post-Arafat era has begun with high hopes in Washington, London, Jerusalem and even Ramallah — but many of the obstacles that prevented peace in Arafat’s day remain, and it’s not clear whether any of the major players has the single-minded determination to make peace happen. The United States is not as actively involved as it may have to be; the Europeans, who would like to be intimately involved, don’t have the necessary political clout; the Israeli leadership, insulated by strong American backing and facing a recalcitrant right wing, sees no need to hurry; and the new Palestinian leaders, hamstrung by radical, violent opponents, may not be able to make concessions beyond what the late Palestinian Authority president countenanced.

President Bush gave an inkling of the ambivalence inherent in American policy after a meeting last week in Washington with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Bush rejected Blair’s call for an international conference and a speedy transition to talks on a final peace agreement, saying the Palestinians first would have to stop terrorism against Israel. At the same time, however, Bush said he still believed the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to resolve the conflict.

The essence of American policy can be gleaned from those ostensibly incongruous statements: The United States will help the Palestinians achieve statehood on condition that they stop violence and carry out economic, security and political reforms. In other words, it’s up to them to make the first move.

Bush also seemed to alter the time frame for Palestinian statehood. Whereas the “road map” peace plan — presented in 2002 — spoke of 2005 as the target date, Bush said he was determined to work toward a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office, in January 2009.

This reinforced the president’s main message to the Palestinians: They must get their act together before the United States will be ready to help. If they’re slow, there will be a price to pay in the deferral of national aspirations. The quicker they act, the quicker statehood can be achieved.

European officials believe the American role primarily should be to help the new Palestinian leadership establish its legitimacy. First, they say, the United States can help with elections for a new P.A. president by leaning on Israel to allow optimum conditions for a free election, with as few signs of occupation as possible.

The election process will have two salutary effects, the Europeans argue: bringing to power a Palestinian leader accepted by the people and creating a sense of democracy at work.

The Europeans also believe that they and the Americans can aid Palestinian democratization by helping to build institutions and train P.A. security forces. But they know that Europe alone cannot effect a breakthrough, and that the United States must take the lead.

As for the Palestinians, they cannot take things forward unless the new leaders establish a stable government. So far, the signs do not augur well.

An incident Sunday in which militiamen from the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement opened fire on the mourners’ tent for Arafat — when his heir apparent, Mahmoud Abbas, and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan were inside — is symptomatic of a fairly widespread refusal to accept Abbas’ authority. Two of Abbas’s bodyguards were killed.

Though it apparently wasn’t an assassination attempt, the shooting was meant to warn Abbas not to diverge from Arafat’s hardline. The assailants shouted, “No Abbas, no Dahlan and no CIA,” suggesting that some Palestinians see the two as American puppets capable of selling out Palestinian interests.

For his part, Abbas believes only America can deliver the goods.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to give Abbas every chance, or at least give the impression of doing so. Despite opposition from some of his closest supporters in the Cabinet, Sharon seems set to allow eastern Jerusalem Arabs to vote in the Palestinian election, even though that part of the city was annexed by Israel in1968 and Israeli officials have been wary of any step that could bolster Palestinian claims there.

Sharon also has the defense establishment working on contingency plans: The National Security Council is considering how Israel’s planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank can be coordinated with the Palestinians, and the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry are drafting blueprints for Palestinian security reforms as well as steps to end the intifada.

Sharon also is contemplating gestures that could help Abbas build authority, such as releasing prisoners and withdrawing the Israeli army from Palestinian cities. On Monday, for example, after an operation that lasted several weeks, Israeli forces withdrew from the West Bank city of Jenin.

But Sharon faces constraints of his own. If he is finding it so difficult politically to withdraw from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank, Israeli pundits ask, how will he be able to withdraw from the huge amounts of territory that a peace agreement would entail?

For now, Sharon is pleased with the way Bush’s policy is shaping up, especially his apparent commitment that the United States will not pressure Israel to engage in peace talks until the Palestinians end violence.

But on the center-left of Israeli politics, there’s a growing sense that if the Americans don’t change course and start pressuring both sides, nothing good will happen. Writing in the economic newspaper Globes, journalist Matti Golan was the latest to articulate the feeling that the only way the deadlock can be broken is through a more proactive American policy.

In an editorial addressed personally to President Bush, Golan called for “an imposed settlement, please.” Bush, he maintains, should not be “behind Sharon,” but rather should give both sides an American lead.

Bush should put a deal on the table and tell the parties that “anyone who doesn’t sign, or even starts to argue, won’t see a single penny, not from you nor the Europeans.”

Golan concludes, “At first, Mr. Bush, there will be howls of protest. But if you hold your nerve, in the end everyone will thank you.”

The belief that only America can pull the Israeli and Palestinian chestnuts out of the fire is growing in Europe, Israel and among the Palestinians. The question is: Will George Bush’s Washington be ready to take on all that entails?

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