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After the Palestinian Elections

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The Palestinians have picked a new leader, but the issues drive their conflict with Israel remain unchanged. Danny Rubinstein, one of the leading analysts of Palestinian politics in the Israeli media, best described the changes heralded by Mahmoud Abbas's election victory: "He may wear a suit, he may not jump on tables or shout that a million martyrs will march to Jerusalem, but his demands from Israel are no different than (Yasser) Arafat's were."

Indeed, Abbas's campaign-trail comments on the on the fate of Palestinian gunmen and on the rights of Palestinian refugees sparked considerable alarm in U.S. media outlets that had tended to paint him as the antithesis of Arafat. That may have been the sound of an illusion beginning to collapse.

Abbas was hardly changing his tune; he was simply emphasizing, as any candidate would, his fealty to the core beliefs of the vast majority of his electorate — beliefs which the U.S. media and administration have tended to ignore in their bid to project a fantasy persona onto Abbas as the White Knight who will deliver Palestinian consent to Ariel Sharon's peace terms.

But Abbas is campaigning for leadership of the Palestinians, a people living under occupation and whose national identity is intimately bound up with the dispossession they suffered as a result of the conflict that followed the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 — and later through its expansion into territories captured in the war of 1967. Throughout his campaign he left no doubt he was seeking the mantle of Yasser Arafat, who had been the symbolic personification of the Palestinian national movement. As if to assure his electorate of his commitment to the legacy of his predecessor, Abbas immediately dedicated his victory to Arafat.

More importantly, Abbas ran as the consensus candidate of a Fatah movement whose membership ranges from aging diplomatically-inclined men like Abbas to the militants of the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, which continued to launch attacks on Israeli targets even as it campaigned for a leader who dismisses such attacks as futile and counter-productive.

The Acceptable Choice

It's not that the al-Aqsa Brigades have much faith in Abbas, nor are they being na´┐1/2ve. Like much of the Palestinian electorate, they simply see him as an "acceptable" if uninspiring choice, one who represents the only chance at this stage of restoring a peace process, and one whom, once elected, will owe a substantial political debt to the Martyr's Brigade and the broader militant Fatah rank and file of which they form part. That's because it was the militants who cajoled the imprisoned popular Fatah militant Marwan Barghouti into withdrawing from the race and throwing his support behind Abbas. Barghouti may well have beaten Abbas in a head-to-head race, particularly since his candidacy would likely have received strong backing not only from the Fatah rank and file, but also from Hamas, which is formally staying out of the presidential race. The margin of Abbas's victory — he won 62 percent of the vote, compared with some 20 percent for the only significant challenger, the independent leftist human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouti (no relation) — hewed pretty much to the predictions of the leading Palestinian polling organization. But the same polls found that, had Marwan Barghouti remained in the race, the jailed militant would have beaten Abbas by a four-point margin.

While it was hardly surprising that the U.S. and EU wanted Abbas over Barghouti, there was a certain irony in their rush to urge Barghouti to withdraw. His candidacy would have offered the Palestinian electorate a serious choice between contending views within the leading political organization over how to pursue their national aspirations, pitting a candidate favoring the armed intifada (Barghouti) against one favoring diplomacy (Abbas). Intead, Barghouti's withdrawal swept under the rug the profound divisions at the heart of Fatah, in the finest tradition of Arafat. And, like his predecessor, Abbas will be expected to be all things to all parties, with the al-Aqsa Brigade's endorsement serving as a rather heavy item of political of baggage shackled to his wrist as he assumes office.

Abbas's statements reiterating such Palestinian basic positions as a right of return for refugees, or the 1967 borders — including the partition of Jerusalem — as the basis for a two-state solution were not simply electioneering, even if that may be true of some of his rhetorical flourishes about "the Zionist enemy" and lionizing fighters whose efforts he has repeatedly disparaged. Abbas, remember, was Arafat's chief negotiator, and although he may be open to creative interpretations of these basic positions (such as the Clinton plan for splitting sovereignty over Jerusalem or the idea that for the majority of refugees, the "right of return" is exercised within the Palestinian state rather than to homes, villages and towns that no longer exist in Israel) they remain fundamental positions. His view of a final-status agreement, as presented to U.S. negotiators in 1999, involved a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and recognition of the refugees right of return. Within those parameters, he suggested that land-swaps could allow Israel to keep some settlements while granting Palestinians territory from within its 1967 borders, and that the refugee issue could be settled without threatening Israel's concern to maintain a Jewish majority.

Suffice to say that while the Israeli government of Ehud Barak offered less, even Barak's offer was vehemently rejected by Ariel Sharon. So, Abbas is keen to resume negotiations with Israel on the basis of President Bush's "roadmap," which leads inexorably to the completion of the Oslo peace process. Sharon prides himself on having buried Oslo.

Abbas's differences with the militants of his own party is one of strategy and tactics, rather than of principle and goals: Abbas believes armed struggle is counter-productive because it hardens attitudes in Israel and destroys international support for the Palestinian cause. Instead, he believes non-violent tactics and diplomacy are the best route to the objective of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Marwan Barghouti sees armed struggle as an indispensable lever in pursuit of the same goal, seeing it as a complement to talks because he believes that the Palestinians capacity to wage an armed intifada is surer leverage at the negotiating table than relying on the goodwill of the United States.

These differences are critically important, and their significance may be measured in countless lives and suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. But there remains a broad consensus on the overall objectives of the Palestinians, which Abbas is once again proclaiming. And there has certainly never been any reason to believe that Abbas sees Gaza, the 40 percent of the West Bank currently controlled by the Palestinians plus the four settlements Sharon plans to evacuate as a sufficient basis for Palestinian statehood. On the contrary, he reiterates his commitment to Oslo and the Roadmap, both of which are guided by the UN Resolution 242, which requires Israeli withdrawal from the territories it seized in 1967. (Post-script: The English text of the resolution doesn't actually use a definite article, and Israel has long insisted that this is precisely because 242 does not demand withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, but instead calls more vaguely for Israel to retreat to "secure and recognized borders." Palestinians, backed by the Arab world and much of the international community insists that the resolution implies a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, noting that the preamble emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." While the meaning of the resolution may be disputed, the negotiations between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority in 2000 following the Camp David breakdown appear to have been guided by the 1967 borders as the starting point, with modifications to be negotiated in a quid-pro-quo.)

The fantasy projected onto Abbas goes further than simply imagining he'll accept something less than what was offered at Taba, where Ehud Barak improved on his "last-best" offer made at Camp David five months earlier. The fantasy also involves the presumptive Palestinian president ruthlessly cracking down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all other groups who have taken up arms against Israel, making them the target of a "war on terror" akin to America's own. This is more than a little farfetched — indeed, it's an idea cultivated in no small part by Arafat himself, in the days when Israel and the U.S. were quite happy to accept him as an authoritarian strongman who would keep a tight rein rather than demand democratic accountability from him.

Not only is Abbas reliant on the political support of the Al Aksa Brigades and their kin; it's an open secret in Palestinian society that many of the officers and men of the official Palestinian security services, on whom Abbas will have to rely to implement his decisions, double as the core membership of the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade and other clandestine Palestinian militia. And even if they are persuaded to accept a cease-fire and resume their day jobs, they're highly unlikely to be willing to round up, at Israel's and America's behest, the Hamas militants with whom they have fought shoulder to shoulder over the past four years.

Abbas, moreover, recognizes that Hamas is an integral part of Palestinian society today, having been moved into the mainstream by the intifada. In recent municipal elections in the West Bank, the movement demonstrated the depth of its political support by winning an estimated 35 percent of the vote. And if they contest the legislative election set for March — which they look set to do — they can expect to win a little over 50 percent in Gaza, which together with a third of the West Bank vote could give them as much as 40 percent of the national vote. The idea that Hamas can be wished away or forcibly eliminated is simply a non-starter for Abbas; instead he plans to draw them into the political process and, on the basis of a consensus of national principles that he plans to negotiate with them in Cairo, to win their agreement for a cease-fire. Israel had rejected this approach while Arafat was alive, and it would be something of a retreat for Sharon to accept it now. But Abbas has given no sign he'd be willing to do things the way Israel and the U.S. would like them done.

Sharon's Response

Abbas wants to be the President of all the Palestinians, and bring them along behind his strategy for achieving statehood. But completing the Oslo process is, to put it mildly, not exactly what Ariel Sharon has in mind. Indeed, the Israeli prime minister resurrected his political career and eventually won the prime minister's job — an outcome unthinkable even in his own party until it became inevitable following the onset of the September 2000 intifada — by leading an aggressive campaign against the Oslo process. Yasser Arafat was widely pilloried in the U.S. for rejecting what was offered at Camp David by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It is worth noting, however, that Sharon was, if anything, far more vehement in his rejection of the same deal.

While there's no denying a shift in the atmospherics between Abbas, Sharon and the U.S., fueled by warm gusts of optimism, there's been little substantive movement in the position of either side over the past couple of years. To be sure, Sharon is talking about leaving Gaza and four West Bank settlements, but despite the best hopes of his Labor Party allies in his new government that this would simply be the start of the fulfillment of the Oslo vision, Sharon and those close to him have left no doubt that they see such a move as a tactic to avoid being pressed back onto the roadmap and the completion of Oslo.

Some Israeli observers fear that Israel will face new U.S. pressure for concessions as a result of Abbas's election, and with good reason — the simple fact is that the U.S. position on Arafat had become untenable given its difficulties in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Having demonized Arafat as the problem, the Israelis will now likely have to deal with the fact that his passing allows the U.S. to recalibrate its own positions in line with its wider interests in the region. President Bush responded to Abbas's election by immediately inviting the new Palestinian leader to the Bush White House, which had been off-limits to Arafat.

The irony is that while Abbas will almost certainly be more democratic than Arafat, that won't necessarily hasten the peace process. In fact, it could even do the opposite: Arafat had used his longstanding executive authority as unchallenged head of a national liberation movement to force through compromises in the Oslo agreement that would not likely have been accepted by his electorate, and later to order crackdowns on Hamas when their actions jeopardized his own plans in 1996.

So, whereas the American and Israeli frustration with Arafat grew out of his failure to deliver on promises, Abbas, lacking his predecessor's stature and being a more cautious and consultative sort, will more likely refrain in the first place from making promises on which he can't deliver. Nor to compromise on the Palestinian national consensus without consultation. It'll be a lot harder for Israel and the U.S. to strike a political deal with a democratically accountable Palestinian leader than with an authoritarian national symbol such as Arafat — although if they do eventually reach a deal, it might be far more durable for the democratic process that preceded it.

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