THREE MEN IN A BOAT
By Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
The New York Times Review of Books
Volume 50, Number 13
August 14, 2003 Issue
 
1. Sharon
 
As he approaches the twilight of his political career, Israel's prime
minister, Ariel Sharon, contemplates his one last remaining task. It is
the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has
sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of
Israel's long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a
unified Palestinian national movement. He feels he is closer than ever
to achieving his goal. The Palestinian polity is beginning to
disintegrate. A generation of Palestinian leaders has been killed or
imprisoned. Step by step, Palestinians will have to begin thinking of
themselves not as Palestinians but as Gazans or West Bankers, Nabulsis
or Hebronites, insiders or outsiders. This conflict is all about
territory, and Palestinian territory is being carved up; it is about
politics and political representation as well, and local Palestinian
fiefdoms are emerging. A new reality is taking shape.
 
"Facts on the ground," the world euphemistically calls them:
settlements, bypass roads, access routes, the separation wall. Together
they are carving out isolated Palestinian cantons, creating an entity
that they will be free, if they so want, to designate as a state. Chaos
is the harbinger of triumph. Soon, if the cards are played
meticulously, patiently, and well, Sharon's legacy to the future will
be much like the past: a heterogeneous, scattered, divided Palestinian
polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past four decades
by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
 
The goal is almost reached, but not yet, and two principal obstacles
remain. The first is Yasser Arafat. To Sharon, Arafat personifies all
that he has vowed to suppress: a militant nationalism opposed to the
Zionist project, implacable hostility toward the state of Israel,
violence, terror, and, until recently, legitimacy in the eyes of the
world. The second is Abu Mazen. Arafat aside, Sharon sees Abu Mazen as
the Last Palestinian, the final leader of a unified national movement,
the man potentially capable of holding the national movement together.
Abu Mazen is needed to eclipse Arafat. But Abu Mazen's ultimate failure
is equally required for Sharon's goal to be fulfilled. Let Abu Mazen
succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada, and
achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only so
far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation
without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu
Mazen's success could bring him strength, and his strength would
revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise
was meant to thwart. Within those circumscribed political
possibilities, Sharon views Abu Mazen's fate as a win-win proposition:
should he succeed in ending the military confrontation, the Israeli
prime minister will take the credit; should he fail, the Palestinians
will take the blame.
 
Sharon worries that so many of his fellow Israelis misunderstand the
nature of this fight. And so they underestimate it. It is one national
movement against another, and the two cannot both survive intact. For
him the Palestinian national movement presents an existential threat to
the State of Israel because it can translate both demographic growth
and violent confrontation into longer-term political weapons. The 1948
war of independence goes on, with this its final battle, the one that
will seal the fate of Israel for generations to come. He is sure he
knows the Palestinians—knows how they think; knows how they
operate—because, in a way, they are his mirror image, doing what he is
doing and has been doing all his life. In this, at least, they share
the vision of a brutal combat between two national movements of which
only one can emerge unified and victorious. Sharon has little
confidence in those who surround or would succeed him. The next
generation of Israelis, impatient, weak, spoiled, hedonistic, and
restless, doesn't have what it takes yet to prevail in this struggle,
may not ever have it. He does.
 
And how well his plan seems to be working. Next to him, he figures,
previous Israeli prime ministers look like amateurs, resisting US and
domestic pressures when accommodation was in order, giving in when
adaptation was at hand, too rigid and too flexible at the same time.
Once branded both an Israeli and an international pariah for his
history, his actions in Lebanon and his role in the massacres committed
in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, he is now viewed as
belonging to the mainstream of Israeli politics. The world might object
to his resort to brutal military tactics, to extra-judicial killings,
with scores of civilian casualties. Still, he is accepted and
respected, neither boycotted nor shunned. For all the sympathy of many
for the Palestinians it is Arafat they are being pressed to break with,
not him. He is not the aggressor; he is Israel's protector in the
international war against terrorism.
 
At home, he enjoys a political security unprecedented in recent Israeli
history. With a third of the parliament's members at his side, he
governs at the head of a right-wing coalition. Undermined by the
intifada and the collapse of the peace process, lacking both message
and messenger, the Left can do little more than wait on the sidelines,
voiceless, leaderless, divided, and adrift. The only vocal opposition
comes from the Right, which suits him more than it threatens. To
Americans pushing for greater concessions, he can point to the Right's
strident protests against those he already has made, evidence of both
his political courage and the political constraints on his policies. To
the Right he can point to the ever-beckoning Left, who, at a moment's
notice, would likely come to his rescue to form an alternative
governing coalition.
 
Sharon promised peace and security. He has brought neither, and still
the Israeli public, convinced of the lack of a credible alternative,
gives him broad support. He has outmaneuvered opponents Left and Right,
cutting them down to size. Age alone can stop him now.
 
Further afield, the regional and international landscape has been
changed in ways gratifying to him. Saddam's regime has been toppled.
Syria's leaders appear more concerned with survival than with
confrontation. Iran too is feeling pressure from the US. Peace treaties
with Cairo and Amman have survived waves of Israeli military attacks
against the Palestinians, heavy civilian casualties, the end of Oslo,
and Arafat's confinement. This is no time to worry about a regional
military threat to Israel.
 
The crowning achievement is his relationship with the US and with
President Bush in particular. Some feared (or hoped) that Sharon's
handling of his relations with the administration would be his undoing;
it has proved to be his strength. In the past he had needlessly
alienated and provoked his US ally. He sees the US better now. He can
pursue his main longer-term objectives while accommodating Bush's
needs. From Israel's former prime minister Golda Meir he has learned
the two core principles of his policy: hit the Arabs (here, the
Palestinians) hard and keep the Americans happy.
 
Around him, some of his more ideological and rigid partners worry
openly about the implementation of the US-sponsored roadmap for peace
and the prospect of a Palestinian state. How shortsighted their view,
how devoid of imagination. It is not outright annexation of the
Palestinians that ought to be the goal, or their impoverishment. Sharon
sees all too well the risks inherent in both. Palestinians are not the
enemy; Palestinian nationalism is. In the longer run, annexation will
mean either apartheid or the end of the Jewish character of the state.
The continued impoverishment of the Palestinians will mean constant
resentment and potential violence. A mini-Palestinian state—defined as
he, Sharon, would define it, limited as he would limit it, hardly a
sovereign state and barely viable, without links to the outside
world—is a gift to Israel, and not to the Palestinians. It is a
ready-made answer to Israel's dilemmas, resolving its demographic
problem, maintaining its security, thwarting the reemergence of a
national Palestinian movement, and, above all, turning an emotional
national struggle into a routine border dispute. This is why statehood,
for which the Palestinians have fought for so long and which Israel has
resisted so fiercely, ironically has now become an Israeli interest and
a Palestinian fear.
 
Sharon has evoked a long-term interim arrangement with the
Palestinians; the "roadmap" talks of a Palestinian state with
provisional borders that should be the prelude to a final agreement.
One way—the wrong way —would be to simply resist the roadmap. In
Sharon's world, the better way is to mold the provisional borders into
a long-term interim arrangement, always preserving Israel's mastery—by
dragging the process out, forever postponing the prospect of a final
deal, and by continuing to build settlements, only this time under the
cover of a recognized Palestinian state.
 
Not that all before him is clear or smooth. There are potential deep
problems ahead. Sharon came into office without being particularly
sensitive to the state of the economy; but he has come to see that
others in the country are, and that the continuing lack of security and
political deadlock with the Palestinians are taking their toll. With
the Iraq war over, adjustments have to be made; some form of political
deal will have to be pursued. He knows too that Israeli public opinion
is fickle, susceptible to short-term pain and short-lived hopes; he has
both suffered and benefited from these in the past.
 
Sharon has come to know the US President as well as he could, but to
him, as to most others, Bush remains something of a mystery,
inattentive to detail, yet taken with grandiose ideas and stubborn in
pursuing their realization. Such spurts of zeal are jarring to the
deliberate, focused, painstaking Israeli leader. He may one day face
unexpected pressure from Washington of a type and with an aim that he
is unsure of. Tactics will have to be used to take care of that, and
what tactics cannot accomplish will have to be done through the passage
of time. Sharon can procrastinate and, if it is truly needed—but only
if it is truly needed —make use of the assets he enjoys in domestic US
opinion so as to keep the President from demanding too much.
 
He has stocked up in anticipation of such uncertainties. Over the last
two and a half years, he has accumulated a heavy load of tangible
political assets. Some were meant to be held on to. Others were meant
to be spent. There are Palestinian prisoners taken only to be released,
territory that Israel occupied with an eye to later withdrawals,
settlements—such as the barely inhabited outposts recently dismantled—
that are established only to be subsequently removed. He has agreed to
political plans, calculating that they are not likely to be carried
out. Such moves have been made at a cost, but that cost is part of the
game of putting the ball back in the Palestinians' court, gaining time,
all the while protecting the supremacy he really cares about.
 
Yielding what you previously took brings you to where you once were,
but a new precedent has been set with the taking; accolades for the
apparent concessions come from abroad and, at home, the catcalls that
come from the Right are few and bearable. The first time the Israeli
army entered Gaza, there was a US outcry and troops were rapidly
withdrawn. By now, some two years later, it is the price of withdrawal
rather than the principle of entry that is being negotiated. It takes
patience and flexibility, a mastery of time and a solid understanding
of what counts and what does not. Sharon trusts that he has more of
each than anyone else.
 
Some lament that Sharon has not changed. Others protest that he has
changed too much. How odd, pointless, and tiresome this debate must
sound to him. Long experience of highs and lows has taught him an
indelible lesson: that nothing protects one from change so much as
change itself. Politics is an affair of constant fine-tuning, a careful
weighing of Israeli public opinion, economic realities, and the
interests of the US, with its sudden and limited attention span.
Constraints are just obstacles that one must bypass in order to better
reach one's true objective. The map of a mini-Palestinian state that he
proudly claims he accepts today, surrounded and perforated by Israeli
territory, is the same one he has had in his pocket for the past twenty
years. If calling it a state is the price to be paid, so be it. It is
one he has come to accept willingly long before so many others on his
right as well as on his left. Some might panic and some might sweat.
Not he—his eyes are continually set on the ultimate goal, as he coolly,
stubbornly, implacably heads toward it.
 
2. Arafat
 
He is holed up in a largely destroyed building, under perpetual Israeli
surveillance, marginalized, shunned, and liable at any moment to be
expelled or worse; but for Arafat the landscape is familiar, at once
comforting and comfortable. He has seen it all before; it is this, not
a red-carpet welcome at the White House, that defines the world as he
knows it. Many times in the past his enemies have confronted him.
Still, he is there. Palestinians have complained about him. In the end,
they have come back to the fold. He was never a man for physical
comfort; that too has not changed. Sharon is confronting him. But when
has he not? They say that this time it is different: rarely have so
many tried so hard to dislodge him from power. How little they know, he
feels: you cannot remove power from him since power will move where he
does, since power is where he is. Go to the muqata, his headquarters,
and the place where he now spends every hour of his day. Run-down,
decrepit as it is, who can deny that it retains the unmistakable aura
of power?
 
Nothing large or small, he knows, takes place without his ultimate
approval, his personal signature. The prime minister was named as a
result of international pressure, but all the pressure was directed at
him, for who else mattered? Security officials await his nod, the
demands for a cease-fire with Hamas need his approval, negotiations
with Israel his sign-off. A word from him defines who is a traitor in
Palestinian eyes, another leads to political redemption. Palestinian
politics are a curious thing, but he is confident he has mastered them
better than anyone else.
 
Where he is, so too will be the center of gravity of Palestinian
politics. As some Palestinian groups move to the periphery, others move
to the center in an endless balancing act in which he remains the
pivot. Wander too far from his orbit, and see how power escapes you.
Today, there are those who seek to push Arafat outside the governing
circles of the Palestinian Authority. So be it. He sees himself
returning to the Palestinian political scene as the head of a more
powerful, and larger, coalition including the majority of his own Fatah
organization, secular radical Palestinian groups, independent
personalities, most of the Palestinian diaspora, and, a novel
acquisition, Islamist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All
of them in one way or another feel alienated from the new PA
government, fearful of its direction, and genuinely loyal to the old
leader or opportunistically coalescing around him, confident that he
will protect them and not betray them, convinced that he is the
authentic leader of Palestine. Whatever he may have lost by not
formally heading the PA council of ministers, he is hoping to gain even
more by being outside it.
 
Ask him, and he will say it is not because of money—though that always
helps—or because of weapons— though they too can lend a crucial hand.
If, in the end, all will return to him, it is through the natural and
inescapable dynamics of Palestinian politics. Ultimately, this will
happen not so much because of who he is as because of what he has spent
a lifetime becoming—the embodiment of Palestine. In his own eyes,
Arafat matters insofar as he is the representative of the Palestinian
people, the product far more than the shaper of Palestine's complex
politics—without a state, with constituencies scattered around the
world, and with violent organizations mingling with political ones.
 
He knows what some think: that he cannot lead, that he merely follows
his people. How wrong, in his mind. He can lead, but only by being at
all times in tune with them. Intuitively aware of Palestine's political
boundaries, he will never take a step that risks encouraging an
effective majority against him, and so he will act only with the
support of mobilized constituencies. He will point to the Oslo accords
where he carried his people along despite their initial and
overwhelming skepticism. Not in a foolhardy way, not in a manner that
from the start would have doomed a strategic choice he was convinced
would serve the Palestinian cause. But rather, once the accords had
been signed, by slowly and meticulously building up a political
constituency capable of overcoming popular disbelief and of bringing to
his side a critical mass of his people.
 
Of all his fears, none is greater than that of being out of touch with
his people, of, in his own words, becoming either a Karzai, viewed as
imposed on Afghanistan from the outside, or a Lahd, the former head of
the South Lebanon Army, viewed as an Israeli stooge. If he sticks to
who he is, he feels, the world will go around in circles until it ends
precisely where it began: with Arafat on one side and Sharon on the
other.
 
Around him much has been going on—from the launching of the roadmap for
peace to the naming of a Palestinian prime minister and the conclusion
of a Palestinian cease-fire, from the dismantling of a few settlement
outposts to reform of Palestinian institutions. How little it all
matters to him. Others consider these events politics. He considers
them to be mere side-shows for which he has little patience,
frivolities of at best uncertain interest, distractions from what ought
to be the exclusive focus—how to maximize the strength of the
Palestinian people, which he equates with the strength of the
nationalist cause, which he equates with his own. Others measure the
usefulness of a Palestinian cease-fire, of a limited security deal with
Israel, of the roadmap according to whether the outcome will invigorate
a new peace process. Not he. The present moment is not about the peace
process for he is convinced that nothing of use can be achieved by it.
It is about the power relationships by which all that matters will be
decided. And so he measures their usefulness by deciding who will
emerge stronger and who weaker.
 
As he looks at the present situation, he is aware of the strains
Palestinians are under, of the internal and external pressures to end
the intifada and the emphasis on improving the Palestinians' living
conditions. But the fight, for him, is about showing political
determination to reach the ultimate political objective, not about
seeking material well-being as such. A flawed deal was dangled before
him at Camp David, with hopes of enticing him with promises of large
amounts of economic aid and the lure of his becoming an established
head of state, with prestige, wealth, and the company of the powerful.
When he could not see the deal and said no to all that, choosing
instead the life of the rebel, he felt at one with his people; and they
reciprocated in kind.
 
Besides, from his vantage point the view is not all bleak: although he
lives in virtual detention, his constituency and his legitimacy have
been strengthened; Israel still lacks security; its economy is in
shambles; and immigration to Israel is plummeting. Then there are the
achievements: the world, many Israelis included, increasingly accepts
the need for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, for the
dismantling of settlements, for Jerusalem's division into two capitals;
meanwhile, pressure keeps growing in favor of an international
intervention. Palestinians are hurting but so too are Israelis. Only
when they fully measure the cost of confrontation will Israelis fully
appreciate the benefits of a true two-state solution in which
Palestinians recover their lost land. The United States, Arab regimes,
and Europeans can clamor all they want for an end to the violence, but
since when have they acted in the Palestinians' interest, when was the
last time they took a risk on the Palestinians' behalf? Theirs is a
story of betrayal that has come in all shades at all times. All may not
be as it ought to, but under these conditions why speak of a
Palestinian disaster?
 
When he looks at Abu Mazen, he sees his companion of many years, there
at the beginning and there at every major turn, ultimately loyal but
not always blindly by his side, one of the very few who never plotted
against him and never dreamed of doing so, insufficiently seasoned in
the raw games of power, too upright for the region's dirty deeds. Abu
Mazen has become both the instrument others are seeking to use to
marginalize Arafat and also a possible means to his political
redemption. As with so many other matters, Arafat will seek to make do.
He will help his prime minister one day to show that he can save him
and undercut him the next, to remind him who is boss. And he will take
solace in the fact that Abu Mazen in power means that Arafat's is no
longer the sole address for recrimination; he can point to someone else
when things do not work as they should. A two-headed rule has its
advantages. For Arafat, it can mean just as much power and far less
responsibility.
 
There are darker moments, when the burden of the siege and the long
isolation weigh heaviest. Clarity and confidence grow fainter. He
suspects that Abu Mazen might be used as part of the conspiracy against
him. He questions whether he will ever regain the trust of the United
States, the country he courted for so long and on which he depended so
much. He wonders whether this will be his last stand. At such times,
anger takes hold.
 
People wonder how Arafat makes decisions, what his longer-range
strategy is, how he plans to get where he wants to be. All of which
must thoroughly mystify him. There is no decision-making as we know it,
no grand strategy, not even a plan. For Arafat what counts is political
intuition in the here and now. Political life is not about methodically
determining how to get from one place to another; it is about assessing
the situation one faces at the moment and figuring out how to emerge
from it, at worst intact, at best strengthened. He will adapt to
situations rather than shape them, react to events rather than preempt
them. The surface conditions of his behavior conceal his own peculiar
consistency. And survival, as always, will come first.
 
He hears people blaming him for launching the intifada, encouraging the
violence, failing to step in. What do they know? Violence as he sees it
is not something he ignites; it is something that happens when
conditions permit and that he may, or may not, try to stop. Decisions
are made through an informal, implicit process. He is simply their best
interpreter and executor, acting on behalf of a broad consensus among
the many political constituencies, weighing as they do the political
cost of tolerating violence against the political cost of stopping it.
But there is in this nothing special about violence; in his eyes it is
merely one instrument among many at the Palestinians' disposal, not
more or less legitimate, and certainly not less legitimate than those
deployed by Israel.
 
Hypocrites all, he thinks, who denounce the Palestinians' resort to
violence when their accusers have done the same, and on a far larger
scale— Americans and Israelis first and foremost. Hypocrites, who
invoke democracy's name to unseat him when no one in the Arab world
enjoys the popular mandate he has been given. They brand him an
extremist when he has always been at the forefront of those arguing for
better relations with the US and for engagement with the Israelis. They
excoriate him for equivocating over President Clinton's proposed peace
deal in 2000 when Sharon has been excused for rejecting it outright.
They seek to export Western institutions, and go on about reform,
accountability, representative govern-ment, when none of this has
anything to do with the rights of his people, with their struggle and
legitimate cause. But this, too, he is confident, shall pass.
Everything will revert to where it was. Everything will come back to
him.
 
3. Abu Mazen
 
He has spent a lifetime in politics craving neither the limelight nor
paramount political responsibility. Yet as he sits in his office as the
Palestinian Authority's first prime minister, Abu Mazen finds himself
saddled with both. He is the public face of the government, the man
upon whom so many pin their hopes and toward whom even more stand ready
to direct their resentment. Once eager to escape political conflict, he
finds himself in the midst of a perpetual political storm.
 
He did not seek the position, nor did he plan for it. It sought him
and, if he sits where he sits now, he does so far more out of a sense
of obligation than of personal ambition. But the sense of obligation
has seized him, and today's Abu Mazen is not yesterday's. His
determination, the very sound of his voice—once a hardly
distinguishable murmur—are signs of this.
 
He looks around him and sees Palestinian land thoroughly reoccupied by
Israel, the Palestinian Authority destroyed, widespread economic
distress, and political mayhem. Practically anyone can acquire a gun
and claim to make policy by showing it off. This is not resistance; it
is anarchy and of the worst sort because it is readily exploited by the
Palestinians' foes. All of this, too, is happening without the world's
lifting a finger, with the Israeli peace camp silent, with the Arabs
indifferent. In the court of international official opinion, the
Palestinians have lost the moral high ground so patiently acquired over
the years.
 
Arafat cannot be held wholly responsible but, for his erstwhile deputy,
neither can he wholly escape blame. The last two and a half years, he
is convinced, have been disastrous for the Palestinians, and Arafat,
who, better than anyone else, could have brought the disaster to an
end, chose instead not to exercise his full authority. There was
nothing new about Arafat's behavior; Abu Mazen was familiar with it as
much as he was familiar with the man himself. Only this time, the
result was an unmitigated catastrophe because it violated so many of
Abu Mazen's cardinal rules: do not confront Israel with violence but
deal with it through negotiations; maintain bridges with the Israeli
public; do not dissipate the Palestinians' international legitimacy.
 
Violence, in his mind, always has been at best futile, at worst
counterproductive. Today, it has backfired, uniting Israeli society
against the Palestinians, silencing the Israeli Left, pushing the US
further to Israel's side, and exposing Palestinians to unprecedented
assault from Israel. Israel has its weaknesses, he believes, but they
are not of a military sort. Rather, they lie in the country's internal
contradictions and in the contradictions inherent in its relations with
the United States. Negotiations and diplomacy will exacerbate and
expose both, driving a wedge within Israel and between Jerusalem and
Washington.
 
By playing the game right, stopping the military uprising, and resuming
peaceful negotiations, Abu Mazen hopes, Palestinians will be in a
win-win situation. Sharon will either agree to implement what is
immediately demanded of him (withdrawal from recently reoccupied
Palestinian territories, a settlement freeze, an end to military
attacks)—and the Palestinian people will enjoy tangible benefits. Or he
will not—and his intentions will be exposed, subjecting him to both US
and domestic Israeli pressure.
 
Palestinian violence, by contrast, obscures these contradictions,
spares the Israeli government the need to make a genuine choice and the
US administration the challenge to live up to its declared commitments,
and blurs the moral clarity of the conflict to the rest of the world,
all without even the hope of prevailing militarily.
 
Once Palestinians have fulfilled their share of the bargain by ending
the violence, cracks will emerge in Israel's united front and, with
President Bush's credibility on the line, pressure will grow for
Washington to intervene. To rely on Israel's self-doubt and America's
self-interest, Abu Mazen knows, involves something of a leap of faith.
It requires proving one's peace credentials by acceding to virtually
all US demands, however unfair they may seem, and stopping the violence
before receiving any tangible political returns. He knows what others
will say: that a return to Palestinian peacefulness will be seen as
Sharon's triumph; that as Palestinian violence comes to an end so too
will pressures on Israel to make concessions; that he is pushing for
unilateral Palestinian disarmament; that Washington will never truly
force Israel's hand; and that the bar of Palestinian obligations will
continue to rise. But Abu Mazen's is a choice by default, for he sees
no other realistic alternative to the worsening of the continuing
calamity since the fall of 2000, with no Israeli inhibitions and no
American constraints.
 
In this sense, Abu Mazen is a man with goals both ambitious and modest.
He aims at no less than the salvation of the Palestinian cause,
stopping what he sees as the current free fall, establishing domestic
and international safety nets to stabilize the situation as well as to
protect Palestinians from future Israeli threats, and resuming its
efforts toward a negotiated settlement. He aspires to cleanse the
Palestinian polity, build a strong, respected central authority,
establish transparent institutions, put an end to militia rule, help to
reinvigorate the Israeli peace camp, and reestablish Palestine's
international legitimacy and, importantly, political ties to the US.
Israel, he realizes, has succeeded in monopolizing the call for
security, when Palestinians need it just as much, need it even more.
His job is to restore a sense of safety to his people, and to make the
world understand that they too deserve it—for only then can there be
real security for the Israelis. Palestinians, he feels, must once again
come across as a civilized people, living up to their commitments,
seeking merely to fulfill their rights under international laws.
 
Abu Mazen is realistic enough to know that, with Sharon in power, a
comprehensive settlement is nowhere in sight. It was not so long ago
that, at his "Sycamore ranch," the man who was not yet Israel's prime
minister spoke openly to Abu Mazen about his vision of the future.
Neither people, Sharon said, is now ready for a final deal. Too much
divides us—on Jerusalem, on refugees, on the final borders, on other
matters as well. But we ought to do what, modestly, we can. What
remains, we must leave to other generations to sort out.
 
Sharon, for Abu Mazen, has few mysteries and raises even fewer hopes.
He sees in Sharon's image of a future in which hard issues are forever
postponed a sugar-coated death sentence for Palestinian national
aspirations. But he trusts that, in the end, the Israeli people
themselves will realize that a fair and comprehensive political
solution will serve their interests too. For this, he relies on the
power of political persuasion and takes solace in the road already
traveled.
 
Israelis once refused to talk to the PLO; no more. They once derided
the notion of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, of East
Jerusalem as its capital; these too are becoming things of the past.
One real hurdle remains, and it concerns the Palestinian refugees. But
here again, he sees reason for hope: sooner or later, Israelis will
come to accept the difference between the principle of the right of
return and the implementation of that right; they will be ready to
recognize the former, so long as the latter addresses Israel's
existential and demographic concerns. Meanwhile, so long as Sharon is
there, undoing the harm that has been done since the outset of the
intifada is Abu Mazen's self-imposed mandate.
 
As much as anyone else, he is aware of the limits of his power. He
enjoys far more international backing than either Sharon or Arafat, yet
he is also by far the most vulnerable politically. He counts on and is
gratified by this support, but he understands the dangers of an overly
warm, suffocating embrace. He realizes that he has an almost impossible
mandate: to crush Hamas without provoking a civil war, to restore
security without appearing to be doing Israel's bidding, to accommodate
US demands without alienating and antagonizing his people. In
undertaking these tasks, he must count on the Bush
administration—powerful, still mysterious, and probably unreliable. Abu
Mazen must act as if President Bush means what he says and will be
without a safety net if Bush does not. He neither has nor expects much
popular support, and he has already come under attack for giving Israel
too much and getting too little; the most he can hope for is continued
backing by the principal Palestinian groups that halfheartedly brought
him there in the first place. Since he is frustrated with Arafat, the
temptation to confront him is ever present. Step by step, he will seek
to expand his margin of maneuver. But on all major issues, he knows, he
will need Arafat's agreement.
 
And so, his mission begins and ends with reversing the reversals of the
past few years. The rest—the pursuit of a comprehensive peace, the
conclusion of a final deal—he will have to hope for and await. For Abu
Mazen, the minimal requirements of a final deal that will carry with it
the Palestinian people and survive internal challenges are clear and
unmoving. They also are virtually indistinguishable from Arafat's and,
he is convinced, it is Arafat's signature and none other's that will
give the deal the legitimacy and sustainability it needs. His fervent
hope is to get to that point before too much damage has been done,
before it is too late.
 
4. A Roadmap
 
What happens on the Israeli–Palestinian front will depend in no small
part on what President Bush chooses to do. But it is also upon the
shoulders of these three men that the fate of the latest manifestation
of the diplomatic process lies. The so-called roadmap for peace is a
document manufactured elsewhere, chosen by others for the three of them
to continue their decades-old fight through different means. They have
been at it for long enough; they have seen proposals like these come
and go. So they will adjust. But in truth it is an odd and awkward
choice. Sharon sees the roadmap as a nuisance, Arafat as a diversion;
Abu Mazen alone views it as worthwhile, but then again principally as a
potential way out of the current mess. None of the three sees it for
what it purports to be: a plan designed to reach a final settlement
within three years. Not one of them truly believes in the logic of its
gradualist, staged approach to peacemaking, which amounts to Oslo under
a different name. Like so many plans before it, it is not its direct
practical outcome that matters so much as its political effect—how its
various actors will exploit it to maximize their very different, even
contradictory goals.
 
In this, Sharon and Arafat bear striking similarities. Neither is in
any particular hurry. Sharon believes that time is on his side,
enabling him to continue his longstanding territorial expansion and bit
by bit to further weaken an adversary he feels is already on the ropes.
Arafat considers time his trusted ally as well. At the end of the day
the Palestinians will still be there, and Israel, sooner or later, will
have to relent. Neither man seems to fear the chaos and tumult of the
present; each seems to believe he can endure it better than the other
can. Power, they have learned, comes from surviving instability, not
from seeking to end it. Both understand that to project a sense of
desperation is already to have lost the war. Both know that roadmap or
no roadmap, the battle must go on, in a shape and with an intensity yet
to be determined.
 
Of the three, only Abu Mazen genuinely believes the disarray must be
brought to an end; only he truly aspires to a return to normalcy and a
resumption of a political process. In this, he enjoys the support of
the United States and the personal backing of its powerful president.
He has the help of the United Nations, of Europe, of much of the Arab
world. He possesses an internationally adopted instrument, the roadmap,
aimed in the first instance at restoring calm and tailor-made to shore
up his domestic position. Why then, in the midst of such a crowd, does
he feel so lonely?
 
 
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States in establishing a Palestinian state. Specifically, ATFP seeks 
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enhancing national security, (2) proliferation of American values of 
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throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds.
 
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Phone (202)887-0177 Fax (202)887-1920

 

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