Palestinians on Abbas: Taking a wait and see approach

The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister has been welcomed in the United States as a boost to prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Bush made Abbas’ confirmation a condition for releasing the U.S.-sponsored peace initiative known as the “road map.” But even though the Palestinians have done what was demanded, serious questions remain about how much effort and political capital the Bush administration is willing to invest in a renewed drive for Mideast peace.

Abbas has gained a measure of credibility in Western eyes because he is perceived as a reformer willing to crack down on Palestinian groups who attack Israeli civilians.

Among Palestinians he is viewed with much less enthusiasm. Palestinians would prefer to elect their leaders democratically rather than have them appointed. Unfortunately elections scheduled for last January were canceled by Palestinian officials, who cited Israel’s refusal to withdraw its tanks from the heart of Palestinian cities. As a result, Abbas is seen by many Palestinians as a candidate imposed from the outside.

Palestinians have also been disgusted by mismanagement and corruption within the Palestinian Authority since long before the international community took up the banner of reform, and many view Abbas as part of that problem.

Israelis’ reactions have also been ambivalent. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been demanding regime change for the Palestinians, but as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained the key figure he was a ready-made excuse for Sharon not to move forward with peace plans his hard-line power base opposes.

Israel has fallen back on demanding that Abbas carry out a vigorous campaign against groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad prior to any peace negotiations and Israeli steps.

Such an approach guarantees failure. If Abbas is seen by Palestinians merely as a policeman acting on Israel’s behalf—or worse someone who launches a civil war— he will lose all legitimacy.

For any chance of success, the process must be simultaneous. At the same time Palestinians are expected to act to curb attacks on Israelis, Israel must stop expansion of Jewish-only settlements—a process that destroys the chances for peace by steadily driving Palestinians off what is left of their land—and lift measures punishing civilians.

Israelis are waiting to see what kind of a leader Abbas will be. But expectations for Israel’s leadership must be equally high. The Israeli government recently announced that it had more than 100 amendments to the road map, prompting Secretary of State Colin Powell to state that the plan was not open to changes from either side.

In truth, Sharon is completely opposed to the road map precisely because it could actually result in a peace deal that thwarts the ambitions of the Israeli right-wing in the occupied territories. Hence, there has been a sustained campaign against the road map in the U.S. from supporters of Israel.

More than 200 members of Congress have signed a letter circulated by pro-Israel lobbyists that opposes the plan. Influential neoconservatives have signaled their strong opposition. And a prominent member of Sharon’s ruling coalition is traveling to the U.S. to join the campaign by lobbying Congress and pro-Israeli Christian groups against President Bush’s peace plan.

Palestinians, too, believe the road map has flaws, but see in it the essential elements that could allow progress toward Bush’s vision of two states—Palestine and Israel—living side by side. To make this vision real, Bush must expend an enormous amount of effort and political capital to challenge those who see the road map as a threat to Israel’s long-term goals rather than as a chance for peace.

Even if U.S. efforts succeed in getting Sharon to say he accepts the road map, there is still plenty of opportunity for delay. As Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn explains, “Sharon can spend long months on security debates, try out local cease-fires and isolated `gestures,’ and, at the same time, keep his promise not to hold `political’ negotiations under fire.”

If Israel succeeds in delaying progress toward peace for even a few months, it will kill the initiative. By fall, the U.S. presidential campaign will begin in earnest, a time when no president can afford the risks of messy Middle East diplomacy.

We have now a brief moment of opportunity.

If we let it pass, we may face years of bloodshed and despair before there is as good a chance to bring hope to two suffering peoples and to begin to repair the tarnished image of the United States as a Middle East peacemaker.

This article was first published in The Chicago Tribune.