Abu Mazen's Mission Impossible?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Arafat and Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas leave the confidence vote session of the Palestinian Legislative Council

TIME.com: Abu Mazen has been elected Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, opening the way for the U.S. and its allies to publish the "road map" and restart the peace process. His election is being hailed as a new dawn in the U.S. media, particularly because he has vowed to fight terrorism and pursue negotiations by taking steps to guarantee Israel's security — in particular, by disarming all Palestinian groups outside of the official security services. How likely is he to achieve these goals?

Jamil Hamad: By my calculation, he's unlikely to succeed, because he faces too much opposition. He has a problem inside Fatah, his own organization. If he's going to dissolve the militias, he has to begin with the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. Dismantling that would send a message to Hamas and the other Islamists that he's serious. But he hasn't said how he intends to go about dismantling the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, or any other group.

Already, many have criticized his new government, saying it won't be able to carry out its mission because it has ignored the younger generation within Fatah (many of whom have been waging armed actions). In fact, Abu Mazen has been criticized from many sides. Those who had expected him to clean up corruption in the Palestinian Authority have been disappointed — Yasser Arafat had a hand in 20 of the 24 cabinet appointment, so the old guard are still very strong.

Also, while Abu Mazen fought hard (against Arafat) for the appointment of Mohammed Dahlan as minister for security affairs, that appointment has actually also brought much anger against the new government. The reason is that Dahlan is not only opposed by the PLO old guard; he is also viewed among Palestinians as a corrupted person — a new leaflet circulating on the West Bank details his bank accounts. Many Palestinian militants believe Abu Mazen's government has been created by the Americans and the Israelis.

You can be sure that Yasser Arafat will be ready to do everything he can to sabotage the mission of Abu Mazen, in order to stop himself being sidelined. Already he has done everything possible to make life difficult for his prime minister.

Against all of this, Abu Mazen is pointing to the "road map." But the Palestinian Authority may be forgetting what the "road map" will require of them. They want the Israelis to withdraw, but in order to achieve that, the Palestinian Authority has to implement a security plan, renounce the right of return (of Palestinian refugees to Israel) and stop incitement and anti-Israel propaganda. How are they going to do it? This is the missing part of how Palestinians envisage the road map.

TIME.com: Have the Palestinian security services been rebuilt since Israel dispersed them when it reoccupied most West Bank cities last year?

Hamad: No. Palestinian Authority security and administrative structures remain scattered. Security control on the West Bank is in the hands of the Israelis. Their jeeps are patrolling every city. How can you build Palestinian security institutions when the Israelis are still there? This may be the strongest obstacle to Israel and the Palestinian Authority reaching agreement on the "road map." The Israelis are saying they won't relinquish security control until Abu Mazen's government achieves the security goals it has promised; the Palestinians are saying they need Israel to withdraw in order to rebuild the security structures.

TIME.com: But if the security structures remain weak, how will they be able to disarm the militias?

Hamad: That's the question Abu Mazen should answer. I doubt very much that his government will be capable of disarming these groups, starting with Fatah. There have been no overtures to the militants of Fatah to discuss Abu Mazen's program. But he has held talks with Hamas. Their response is that they're not going to surrender their weapons, and plan to continue fighting the Israeli occupation. They are saying, "We advise the government not to touch us." Hamas will not surrender very easily. In fact, we should expect some violence and terror in the coming days, because this is how the militant groups will oppose Abu Mazen — by launching attacks on Israelis, they will try to cripple him, show the Israelis that he is incapable of changing anything. This is the way Palestinian radicals have expressed their opposition to Arafat in the past, and it's is likely to be the way they will oppose Abu Mazen.

TIME.com: So you're expecting no immediate change in the situation on the ground as a result of Abu Mazen's election?

Hamad: No. Sharon may offer some largely symbolic concessions, such as removing road blocks or outposts built near settlements without permission. But security control of the Palestinian territories will remain in Israeli hands. The best support for Israel's hawkish line always comes from among the Palestinians themselves, in the form of terrorism. Progress for the Palestinians depends on easing the security climate inside Israel.

TIME.com: But that's exactly what Abu Mazen is saying?

Hamad: Yes, but he will be judged not on his words, but on his actions. He's emphasizing Israeli withdrawal; the Israelis are emphasizing security. And I doubt that he can deliver on that. In the end, his election may not be the decisive break with the past that some people may be hoping for.