Ziad Asali
Carnegie Endowment, Washington DC
World Affairs Council
December 8, 2004 - 1:00am

The very intractability of the Palestinian Israeli conflict over the past several decades makes it wiser to analyze it rather than to prognosticate about it. However, the long- standing deadlock and the sense of helpless shrugging of the shoulders with despair it generates, have recently been broken by several developments that call for a reassessment.

I will briefly touch on the events in Israel and the United States that I believe are changing the dynamics, or at least the atmospherics, of the conflict and then move on to the Palestinian series of events that are taking place, and are, in my view, of consequence.

Israel is in the throes of political turmoil that results from the decision of Prime Minister Sharon to push his Disengagement Plan from Gaza and four settlements in the Northern West Bank. His dogged pursuit of this plan is rearranging the political map of Israel. Most Palestinians are suspicious of Sharon’s intentions, but his plan is understood by all to mean the first and irreversible end to the Greater Israel, Eretz Israel, dream based on metaphysical and religious claims. A new unity government, that includes Labor, leftist and religious parties could very well emerge out of this turmoil and will give Mr. Sharon the power to carry out his plan. Otherwise, new elections will probably see him in control of a different coalition that will do the same. The deeply-held concern that the Disengagement Plan is an attempt to buy time to keep Israel’s hold on the West Bank as it relinquishes Gaza will complicate the lives of Palestinian leaders who will need to formulate, and sell to their constituents, policies that will accept to deal with the short term implementation of this plan.

In the United States, reelection of President Bush, with what his supporters call a mandate, gives him political chips that he has indicated that he will use, specifically in pursuit of a resolution of this conflict. The President has stated publicly that this conflict is on his agenda, and privately that it was top on his agenda. He sees it as part of a Grand Strategy to reshape the Middle East, and as a tool in the war for democracy and against terror. He sees the upcoming elections in Palestine as an exercise in democracy and an opportunity for the Palestinian people to chose a leader he, and the West, including Israel, can have as a partner in the long journey that will lead to a lasting peace between two viable and secure states. The suspicion amongst the Palestinians that Mr. Bush is entirely biased towards Mr. Sharon and his policies will diminish the effectiveness and standing of Palestinian politicians who are close to him and are likely to coordinate their policies with his. The distance that the United States has kept from playing a traceable role in the Palestinian election reflects awareness in Washington of these realities. One could conjecture that it also indicates a certain level of Washington’s confidence in the judgment of the Palestinian people and their final choice.

The political events in Palestine, beginning with the two-week period leading up to Arafat’s death and up till last week, have revealed few, if any, major mistakes on the part of the leadership. The national institutions, including the PLO Executive Committee, the Central Committee, the Revolutionary Committee, as well as the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority, and the various committees of Fatah, the Leading ruling party, have all met, and in due order, designated and elected candidates for their various committees and then a candidate by Fatah for the Presidency. All in all, a total of 10 candidates have submitted their names and credentials for the office. These are in addition to other agreements which have begun laying the foundations of a genuine democracy at work such as running municipal election in this month of December, National elections for the President on January 9, Elections for the Legislative council before June and for Fatah Central Committee in August. The harmony displayed was both impressive and unexpected. The fault lines seemed to be held in check with the endorsement last week of Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, by all Fatah factions including the leader of the Young Fatah Mawan Barghouti who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison.

However, within six days, Barghouti reversed his position and filed an application to run challenging the old guard, the outsiders from Tunis who came back in 1994 and posing as a bearer of Arafat’s mantle who would carry on with the Intifada and defend the Palestinian “constants.” This is presumably a stance against giving in to the Israelis and Americans by giving up on an independent state on 1967 borders with its capital in Jerusalem, carrying on the Intifada—short-hand for armed struggle—upholding the right of return and calling for the release of prisoners. The shackled wrists up in the air were his new symbol of resistance. Young Fatah leaders were asking for their share of the power pie. Fatah reacted with barely contained disapproval and the young activists were publicly split. It remains to be seen how much support he will get from the young activists, and from the silent majority who has expressed a great deal of criticism of the corruption and cronyism of the old establishment. During the course of the campaign, which promises to be robust, and I hope will be peaceful, it will be made perfectly clear to the Palestinian people that electing a President in prison as a replacement to one who was confined, will deprive them of the essentials of the power of the office and will rebound to the benefit of their enemies. The fear of fragmentation and disorder will weigh heavily in favor of the candidate of the establishment.

Mahmoud Abbas has established a partnership with his Prime Minister with an impressive public display of unity. Indicating that he was the sole candidate of Fatah, and he went about his business acting Presidential. He behaved not as a candidate but as a statesman. He met with the leaders of Hamas and Jihad in their stronghold in Gaza working on a long term truce and with the leftist opposition parties asking for national reconciliation. He convened and presided over all the committees that counted. He acted with the sure-footedness of the professional. His public utterances were measured, and he delegated authority to empower his lieutenants to act on unifying all security elements and consolidating financial accountability. His first trip abroad was to Egypt, the most senior Arab country and the one most deeply involved in the Disengagement Plan, with a subsequent trip to Jordan, the home of many Palestinians and the country with historical links with the West Bank. His next, and more symbolic trip was to Syria, defiant Syria that has hosted the Palestinian opposition to Arafat for decades. He spoke of consultation and coordination with the Syrian regime of Bashar Asaad. There he met with Palestinian opposition leaders in exile, ranging from leftist to Hamas and Jihad Leaders where he continued discussions about a “Document of Honor” cease fire agreement. From Syria he moved on to Lebanon to meet with Lebanese officials about joint problems like refugees in Lebanon and also to meet with Palestinians in exile.

His next scheduled trip will take him to Gulf States to mend fences torn by his predecessor and to raise much needed funds to improve the economy and to show an immediate dividend for the policy of compromise.

All in all, his meetings and travels first with the Palestinians, and then the Arabs, were meant to strengthen his hand before he meets with Sharon and the move up to Europe and the United States after his election. It is a strategy of a candidate confident of victory and prepared to lead.

Up until this moment he has kept a correct public distance from the United States and Israel. He did not need a bear hug. Rather he needed tangible meaningful assistance that translates to a palpable improvement in the quality of the lives of the common man in Palestine and an amelioration of the conditions that compromised his dignity. In short he needed the mirror image of what he received in his four-month tenure as Prime Minister under Arafat in 2003. Having defined himself in the past during the days of Arafat, courageously, as opposing military action of the Intifada and as the architect and signatory to the Oslo Agreement, Abu Mazen is a known quantity. He does not need to be tested but assisted. Israel has many carrots and sticks it can use. Any and all measures that facilitate the feasibility of elections, lift the bane of humiliation of the people at check points and other encounters, decrease the presence and visibility of the Israeli army, enhance the mobility of people and goods and improve the economy will change the atmospherics and will strengthen the appeal of candidates who call for peace through negotiations. Israel needs to have the confidence that the emerging Palestinian leadership is serious in its control over the unified security apparatus but it can no more expect guarantees of total security than it has been able to get on its own. Creative sources of security acceptable to all, including NATO forces under American leadership, need to be considered. Down the road, comprehensive security treaties, between Israel, as well as the future State of Palestine, and the United States as well as the European Community should provide the bedrock security regime that will allay fears and underwrite compromise.

The United States, lead by a President willing to spend political capital and saying so, will have to play its indispensable role as a shepherd and broker, using the wide array of national, international and regional tools to guide this process. It is clear that this President is committed to the vision of peace through democracy. A skeptical Palestinian public will not give its leaders who are willing to work with the President the luxury of time needed to test this hypothesis. They need reassurances about the viability of their state in order to accept the burdens of building their democracy over time. It is imperative to square the circle by implementing a policy that delivers, predictably and in a timely manner, on its promises to improve the lives of the Palestinian people irreversibly and to lead them step-by-step to independence.

The heavy lifting, however, is placed on Palestinian shoulders. They are expected to build the institution of a democratic state, while under occupation, before they enter into serious negotiations regarding final status issues. The Nationalist and Islamist opposition, already skeptical about American and Israeli intentions, will be exceptionally reluctant to trust its fate to the hands of someone who they think cannot lead them to a viable state. As things stand we have two huge stages for next year: one from now until the election of January 9th, and the second is the stage of institution, nation and state building which will take up to a year. During the first stage the main challenge will be to elect with a comfortable margin the kind of leadership that will be a serious partner in the international arena. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have already decided to sit out the presidential elections as they field candidates for the legislative council; Marwan Barghouti will have to decide whether to stay in the fight or opt out under pressure from Fatah; and the silent majority will watch with great care. All palpable measures of relief in the day-to-day life of the electorate will rebound to the benefit of the present leadership. The time is now, and the more that is done and the less that is said, the better. People will vote for hope if they sense it.

The experienced and sophisticated Palestinian leadership will have to do its part to win the elections; however, the United States, Israel, the Arab states, and the European community are all significant players in the Palestinian elections and in the crucial period after it.

A clear winner will have the legitimacy and the moral authority to guide the next complicated stage.

During the next stage after elections, the Palestinians will start consolidating their political, legal and civic institutions as they go about building their democracy. However, the Disengagement Plan is likely to be the main subject of substantive political action. The Palestinians will want a more comprehensive approach with a process that spells out the contours of the end of the conflict. The Israelis and perhaps the United States may want to slow this process down. The greatest concern during this period will be about the viability and sustainability of a moderate leadership unable to deliver a clear and acceptable political solution. It is hard to see how such a leadership can survive if the Disengagement Plan is not integrated in the Road Map or a similar regime. Opposition forces will gain significant ground if the moderates are unable to deliver enough to the people to keep their hope alive for an acceptable final resolution within an acceptable time frame. Palestinian democracy, and its institutions, can only be sustained by the support of the people to the leadership. Coercive measures to sustain it will negate the very foundation of democracy and will lead to the reemergence of forces opposed to negotiations and committed to a long and drawn out state of confrontation and conflict.

The alternatives are not between all out war and peace, but rather between peace, security and prosperity on the one hand, and chaos, violence and poverty on the other. The choices that major players make, or refrain from making, at this time will shape the future of the Middle East for decades to come.

Ziad Asali, M.D.
American Task Force on Palestine


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