When Ariel Sharon held talks with Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month in Jerusalem, the session was described in many reports, for linguistic convenience, as a first meeting between the Israeli prime minister and his new Palestinian “counterpart.” Unfortunately, for all those who seek an end to the deaths of innocents in our conflict, the implied parallel is misleading: Although Sharon heads the Israeli political hierarchy, Abbas is not the preeminent Palestinian political player. And therein lies the main obstacle to substantive progress via the American-backed “road map.”
A bitter skeptic when it comes to assessing Palestinian leaders and their intentions vis-a-vis Israel, Sharon nevertheless seems prepared to take Abbas, and his publicly stated desire to put an end to the armed intifada, at face value. But Abbas does not set the Palestinian agenda. That privilege remains the domain of Yasser Arafat -- ailing, besieged but still both the symbol and the strategist of the Palestinian struggle.
“We do not do anything without his approval,” Abbas himself meekly acknowledged in an interview with an Egyptian weekly a few days ago.
While Arafat tops every Palestinian leadership popularity survey, Abbas barely figures. More crucially, while Abbas attempts to curtail the bombings by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Arafat-loyalist Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Arafat retains direct control of several of the numerous armed Palestinian Authority security apparatuses and refuses to have the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade disarmed.
Moreover, Arafat is still publicly espousing the maximalist positions that caused the collapse of the July 2000 Camp David summit: He continues to ridicule and reject Israeli claims to sovereignty at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism; he continues to demand that 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants be given the right to citizenship not in a new, independent state of Palestine but in Israel -- a demand, essentially, for the demographic overwhelming of the Jewish state. Clearly no attempt at reconciliation can succeed so long as Arafat is, quite literally, calling the shots.
Does all this, along with the latest spate of suicide bombings, mean that Israel should spurn the best efforts of President Bush and other would-be peacemakers to advance the road map? Not at all, and it is encouraging that Sharon is now accepting the road map in principle.
It is in Israel’s prime interest that the Sharon government assure the international community, its own people and the Palestinian public that it is anxious to get back to the serious negotiation the road map envisages.
Israel needs to stress that it longs for the day when it can safely withdraw its troops from their forward positions around and inside West Bank cities, confident that an efficient Palestinian Authority security force is engaged in a concerted effort to prevent new waves of bombers and gunmen from filling the vacuum. It needs to begin dismantling the dozens of barely populated settlement “outposts” that have sprung up in the West Bank lately, even though many were set up in memory of Israeli motorists shot dead there by Palestinian gunmen.
Such Israeli steps, of course, would also boost the credibility of relative moderates like Abbas with their own people, at the expense of Arafat.
Would Sharon offer the Palestinians viable terms for statehood at any future substantive talks? Quite possibly not. But in that case, the Israeli electorate would dump him in favor of a leader who would meet the Palestinians half-way -- just as, in 1999, it dumped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in favor of Ehud Barak. That kind of political earthquake would recur if Israelis sensed a true change on the Palestinian side and Sharon, or any successor, failed to grasp the opportunity.
Sadly, such change -- such a Palestinian endorsement of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state -- simply will not happen as long as it is Arafat, rather than Abbas, who is Sharon’s true “counterpart.”