Can Abbas and Sharon Succeed?

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ALADIN ABDEL NABY / REUTERS

WARMER RELATIONS? Abbas and Sharon at Sharm el-Sheikh

Longtime observers of the Middle East could be forgiven for experiencing a moment of déjà vu in the spectacle of Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas declaring an end to hostilities in an Arab Red Sea port on Tuesday. The Sharm el-Sheik summit repeated many of the themes echoed by the two men when they met 18 months ago at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, and the resulting truce, was, then as now, hailed as a new beginning. That deal collapsed within weeks, and many of the factors that contributed to its demise have not been fundamentally altered. To be sure, Yasser Arafat, blamed by the U.S. and Israel for sabotaging the peace effort, has gone. But that hasn't narrowed the chasm between the two sides on such fundamental questions as where to draw borders, the status of Jerusalem, and more immediately the future of Israeli settlements and the seperation fence, and even steps required to sustain a truce. The reason? The basis of Abbas’s truce declaration was not a new commitment by the Palestinian security services to wage war on militant groups like Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, but a voluntary truce or “hudna” adopted by those groups in exchange for Israel agreeing to end attacks on their leaders, ease conditions in Palestinian territories and free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

Sharon, of course, insists he has no intention of dealing with the likes of Hamas and the al-Aqsa Brigades, and insists that if Abbas is serious about reviving the U.S.-backed “roadmap” to peace his first priority will be to systematically disarm and dismantle the organizational infrastructure that would allow those groups to return to arms should the “hudna” fail. Having voluntarily embraced a ceasefire, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa brigades have made clear they have no intention of disarming — and Israeli security officials warn against accepting an arrangement that simply allows them breathing space. But Abbas has already made clear that while he can deploy his security forces to police an agreed cease-fire, he has neither the capacity nor the intention of waging war on those groups.

Abbas’s political debt

Mahmoud Abbas owes his presidency in no small part to the backing of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, who facilitated his election by persuading the more popular imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to withdraw from the race. (The most authoritative Palestinian polls suggest Barghouti would have beaten Abbas by four percentage points.) Many of their grassroots members are also the rank-and-file of Abbas’s uniformed Palestinian security services, on whom he would have to rely in any crackdown. Hamas, meanwhile, has moved into the mainstream of Palestinian politics, and in recent municipal elections in Gaza its candidates handily thrashed those of Abbas’s own Fatah movement. While Abbas was certainly democratically elected, his mandate comes as much from the Al Aqsa Brigades as from supporters of his own view that the armed intifada has been a self-inflicted catastrophe for Palestinian national interests.

Abbas sees a consensus with the militants over a ceasefire and a return to talks as the only viable way of restarting the moribund negotiation process towards a Palestinian state. The militants are playing along, at least for now, but reserving the right to resume attacks on Israel should the truce break down.

The Sharm el-Sheikh talks were really just talks-about-talks, discussions about preconditions for resuming dialogue. Still, even on the question of prisoner-releases, the fault lines are already clear: Israel has offered to help cement Abbas’s stature by releasing some 900 Palestinians imprisoned for lesser offenses, but it steadfastly refuses to free any prisoner “with blood on his hands.” But it is precisely those prisoners the Palestinians want freed in exchange for a cease-fire, starting with the 237 whose acts of violence were committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords when the PLO ostensibly ended hostilities with Israel. Not only does the very idea of freeing those who have killed Israelis tear at Sharon’s own instincts, but such a move would almost certainly strengthen the hand of those on the right flank of his own party who are looking to unseat the prime minister in order to scuttle his planned Gaza withdrawal. Abbas’s problem, however, is that the militants have made prisoner releases a fundamental condition for their “hudna,” and its prospects are grim if he can’t deliver in a manner that satisfies them. So, even on a “precursor” issue such as prisoner releases, Abbas’s needs and Sharon’s may be mutually exclusive. Following Tuesday’s talks, the two sides agreed simply to create a committee to further discuss Israel’s criteria for releasing prisoners.

Divergent agendas

The two sides’ agendas diverge even further when it comes to the next steps required of each. For Abbas, a ceasefire is a means to quickly revive the stalled Oslo negotiations over a final agreement separating Israel and a Palestinian state. Indeed, it is this “political horizon” that creates the very rationale for a ceasefire on the Palestinian side, and Abbas has been hard at work for weeks now forging a common negotiating position among Palestinian factions. In what would be a remarkable shift on the part of Hamas — or a realization, like that experienced by the PLO in the 1980s, that the State of Israel is an intractable reality — the Islamist organization has signaled its readiness to accept the principle of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Not that Abbas necessarily expects to cut a deal with Sharon. He has long argued that by launching the armed intifada, the Palestinians squandered the international support, particularly among Western nations, which he believes remains their most effective means of leverage behind the Palestinian negotiating position. By ending violence, Abbas hopes to restore that support — and some of his backers have even suggested that a more moderate posture from the Palestinians will persuade the Israeli electorate to dump Sharon and elect a government more inclined to complete the Oslo process.

Sharon’s immediate objectives are obviously quite different: He has long maintained that a comprehensive final-status deal with the Palestinians is beyond reach for the foreseeable future, and that long-term interim agreements are a more realistic goal. His overriding concern right now is to calm in the security situation in order to complete his unilateral evacuation of Gaza and four West Bank settlements. Sharon has enjoyed unprecedented backing from the Bush administration, which has altered the traditional framework in which the U.S. had prescribed certain actions and restraints to the Israelis; maintaining that support is the priority that will shape his engagement with Abbas.

The Israeli prime minister is more than happy to trade calm in exchange for calm, while always maintaining Washington’s backing for his security demands and ensuring that he is not pushed onto any political track that leads to a destination with which he’d not be comfortable. While making ritual deference to the “roadmap” — a document with which Sharon has never fully supported — the Israeli leader emphasizes that its first phase requires Abbas to begin disarming and dismantling the operational structures of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigade. The Palestinians will seek to delay any such actions and seek more by way of political concessions from Israel in order to keep the “hudna” intact.

For both sides the premium goal is U.S. support, and the tactical priority is to avoid being held responsible if the process breaks down, as the track record suggests it very well may. The best hope for success, in fact, may be the very exhaustion that has set in among both peoples after four years of bloodletting. Still, Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice’s absence from Tuesday’s talks signaled Washington’s own caution. Having been burned at Aqaba, this time the administration is going to cheer the parties on hold back on intervening directly to force the pace.