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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 07, 2003

Prime Time

New Republic piece concerning Israel/Palestinians at end of Iraq war. What comes after the war?
At the end of February, with war in Iraq looming, U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen paid a visit to Yasir Arafat in his shattered compound in Ramallah. For months, the Palestinian leader had believed the outbreak of war would work to his advantage, restoring him as a key player in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But Roed-Larsen laid it on the line: According to diplomatic sources, he told Arafat that the Palestinian leader would be "finished" unless he immediately appointed a prime minister with substantial powers--a precondition set by Ariel Sharon and the White House for restarting the peace process. Weeks later, Arafat grudgingly named his aide, Mahmoud Abbas, known by the nom de guerre Abu Mazen, to the post. Then, in dozens of phone conversations and meetings in smoke-filled rooms in Ramallah over the next two weeks, reformers from the Fatah movement, a faction within the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), persuaded key Arafat loyalists to block Arafat's bid to retain de facto control of the P.A. On March 18, the Palestinian Legislative Council rejected by an overwhelming majority Arafat's attempt to weaken the post, giving Abu Mazen total control over Cabinet appointments and other key responsibilities. "It was a democratic revolution," says Mohammed Hurani, a Fatah deputy who organized the rebellion.

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Yet, even before the road map gets off the ground, it is facing withering skepticism from all sides. Despite Bush's public endorsement, according to U.N. officials, top White House officials, such as Dick Cheney, have been lukewarm toward the plan because they believe it does not make security for Israel the top priority, and they have sparred with the State Department, the key participant with the United Nations in the drafting of the document. Sharon's government has raised dozens of objections, including the plan's call for the creation of an "independent" Palestinian state. But the biggest short-term obstacle may be the very phenomenon that gave the road map momentum: the war in Iraq. ..

For the moment, Sharon is expressing cautious support for Abu Mazen. Israel once denounced him for "supporting terrorism" and vilified him as a "Holocaust denier." But the Israel Defense Forces have removed from their website excerpts from a book about Abu Mazen published in the early '80s based on his dissertation from Moscow's Oriental College in which he questioned whether the Nazis had used gas chambers and claimed that fewer than one million Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust. Israeli Director of Military Intelligence Major General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash told the Israeli Cabinet last weekend that he discerns "an authentic and positive desire for change" in Abu Mazen, the only member of Arafat's inner circle who has consistently spoken out against the intifada. Sharon's top aide, Ephraim Halevy, has held at least one private meeting with the new prime minister, and one member of the diplomatic quartet that drew up the road map predicts that Sharon and Abu Mazen will have their first meeting in the coming weeks.

But the honeymoon could end quickly. Abu Mazen has begun holding talks with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an effort to induce them to declare a cease-fire. Both Palestinians and Western diplomats, however, say that the rejectionists still have the upper hand. Disarming the militants, a key initial component of the road map, may prove to be far too ambitious a goal. "I can't see them giving up their guns," a European envoy who talks frequently to Hamas told me. The appointment of a strong Palestinian interior minister could intensify pressure on the radicals: One leading candidate is Mohammed Dahlan, the former preventive security chief in the Gaza Strip, who argued that the uprising was destroying the P.A. and who resigned his post last year. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad still enjoy strong support among Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, and any attempted crackdown against the militants is certain to backfire unless the Israeli government makes some substantial concessions of its own. "Abu Mazen has to show his people that the Israelis are freeing prisoners, withdrawing from the occupied territories, and stopping house demolitions," Roed-Larsen told me. "And he has to show Israel and the United States that there is no more terror." ...

Yet, despite such pressures--and even if the Iraq war ends quickly--most Palestinians and Israelis I talked to aren't optimistic about the prospects for peace. Sharon's requirement of a total cessation of violence before substantial negotiations can begin may be unattainable. "All you need is one idiot in Gaza, that's enough to derail the process," says Yossi Beilin, former minister of justice in Ehud Barak's government and a member of the Israeli negotiating teams at Oslo and Taba. Sharon's opposition to surrendering settlements also makes it unlikely that the road map will move beyond phase one, which calls upon Israel to take down outposts built after March 2001 and declare a settlement freeze. Even if the two sides progress past the first phase, most observers expect negotiations to bog down over the boundaries of a provisional Palestinian state. Foreign Minister Shalom said this week that Israel will give Abu Mazen one or two months to prove he can stop terrorist attacks--something that Palestinians close to the new prime minister say will be difficult. After two and a half years of suspicion and intransigence on both sides, most peace-process veterans I spoke with believe that the road map will end up like all the other peace initiatives of the last two years: a long detour to nowhere.