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Diplomatic and Strategic Setbacks Highlight Palestinians’ Weaknesses

April 20, 2004
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The assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, combined with President Bush’s backing of Israel’s disengagement plan from the Palestinians, has dealt a double blow to Palestinian hopes for strategic leverage in the Middle East.

Palestinians now are looking to the Gaza Strip as the next opportunity to reorganize a political community in disarray.

It remains unclear who will take over in Gaza after the Israelis pull out, but sources say Israel and the Palestinians increasingly are eyeing Mohammed Dahlan, the former Palestinian Authority minister of internal security, as a future strongman.

With the elimination of Hamas’ leadership leaving a potential political vacuum in the Gaza Strip, Dahlan, a pragmatist, is the natural candidate to fill it.

“I don’t want to discuss names,” Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi told JTA. “What’s important in Gaza is not that name or another, what’s necessary is the rule of law — and if it’s Mohammed Dahlan that contributes to achieving it, then so be it.”

Dahlan has been one of the few Palestinian leaders who dared to speak out in favor of Israel’s disengagement plan – – or, at least, the Gaza portion of it, praising it as vindication of the Palestinian terrorist strategy. But that was before Bush’s endorsement of the plan and the killing of Rantissi.

Now, with Bush supporting Israel’s claim to part of the West Bank, Palestinians may find it harder to swallow Dahlan’s initial backing of the plan. Moreover, Israel’s preference for Dahlan could work against him, as the Palestinians repudiate any leader favored by Israel.

In a recent interview with Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Dahlan said that a reformed, liberated Gaza Strip could serve as a model for a future Palestinian administration. He dismissed suggestions that the Palestinian Authority is threatened by Hamas and said the Palestinian Authority would have no problem reasserting its control over a liberated Gaza Strip.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has been negotiating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad — another terrorist group — on understandings for the post-withdrawal period.

Palestinian newspapers have compared Bush’s declaration of support for Israel’s disengagement plan to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. That letter, written by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to the Jewish leader Baron Rothschild, stated that “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Bush’s statement on April 15, which demonstrated that the United States accepts permanent Israeli settlement in parts of the West Bank, will be marked as yet another notorious date in the history of the Palestinian national tragedy, Palestinian newspapers said.

Traditionally, U.S. policy has regarded the settlements as illegal, but now that policy has been reversed.

Many Palestinians perceive Bush’s warm embrace of Sharon as a signal that settlements like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim are here to stay. Even the Clinton administration, in its January 2001 proposal for a peace agreement, had done much the same, proposing that Israel retain major settlement blocs close to the pre-1967 boundary.

Still, even Palestinians who had expressed a willingness to accept minor border alterations and territorial exchanges were devastated by Bush’s April 15 statements.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian architect of the unofficial “Geneva accord” peace proposal, said the Bush-Sharon meeting amounted to “the end of the peace process.” P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei described it as a “catastrophe.”

The Palestinians virtually have given up hope on the Bush administration, certainly during the current term. Thus, they will move in two directions: They will try to convince the European Union to push the Americans toward a more “balanced” policy, and they will try to enlist growing resentment toward Bush in the Arab world for their cause.

Within the Palestinian political community, Rantissi’s killing makes dialogue between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority easier in the short run.

P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s people in Gaza viewed Rantissi as a constant troublemaker. After Israel killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin last month, Arafat reportedly said, “Sheik Yassin was a serious and balanced leader, but this is not the case with Rantissi.”

With Rantissi gone and Hamas weakened, the Palestinian Authority may find it easier reach an internal understanding with Hamas — provided that Hamas’ leadership in Damascus does not get in the way. With the Palestinian political establishment weak already, unity is key.

National unity was the theme of events marking the second anniversary of Israel’s arrest of Fatah’s West Bank leader, Marwan Barghouti, and the anniversary of the death of Khalil al-Wazir — also known as Abu Jihad — Arafat’s second-in-command in the PLO, who was assassinated at his home in Tunis in 1988.

In a public speech devoted to Abu Jihad, broadcast last week on Palestinian television, Arafat emphasized national unity and declarations that the Palestinians have no intention of forgoing their perceived rights, including the demand that millions of refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and their descendants, be allowed to return to Israel.

The Palestinians also will try to use next month’s likely Arab summit in Cairo to form a united front against Bush, but they probably will fail.

On Sunday, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, currently on a tour of the Persian Gulf preparing for the summit, called for “a joint political and diplomatic action in a bid to protect Arab interests.”

On Saturday, the 22 members of the Arab League said Washington’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a threat to regional security and stability.

At the Palestinians’ request, the Arab League held a special session in Cairo on Saturday to respond to Bush’s move.

“The council . . . affirmed unanimously that it rejects the new American position, which is likely to wreck the peace process in the Middle East,” an official statement said.

While Palestinians could be pleased with Arab rhetoric following the Bush-Sharon meeting, they couldn’t overlook the fact that Bush’s embrace of Sharon came shortly after the president had met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, that was yet another proof of the Arab world’s inability — or unwillingness — to stand up for the Palestinians.

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