The Horsetrading Begins amid the Sharon-Abbas Charm Offensive

Thursday night, November 25, Stephen Hadley, designated national security adviser in the White House, telephoned Mahmoud Abbas – Abu Mazen – the ruling Fatah’s sole nominee to succeed Yasser Arafat, and asked him when was the best time for a visit to Ramallah – before or after the January 9 election. After, said Abu Mazen firmly. “Now I had better be left to campaign on my own.”
Last week, Abbas ducked out of a photo opportunity with US secretary of state Colin Powell for fear of damaging his chances with the Palestinian voter. This week, the incoming US national security adviser consults him on his travel schedule. Ramallah has clearly undergone a metamorphosis in the three weeks since Arafat’s departure. Washington is even sympathetic to the new Palestinian leader’s reluctance to be seen too close to American or Israeli officials; understanding that his most urgent priority now is to gain endorsement from the Arab world.
Saturday, November 28, he took off for a round tour of Arab capitals to elicit public recognition from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, whom he met in Cairo Sunday, November 28, and Syrian president Bashar Assad, who receives him on December 10, after totally shunning Yasser Arafat for years. Even before he left, Abu Mazen began rounding up sponsorships from Persian Gulf Emirs. He needs political and moral legitimacy from the two Arab rulers, but Gulf emirates’ smiles would translate into financial pledges, a winning ticket for the poverty-stricken Palestinian electorate.
Welcoming the seemingly-moderate Abbas in place of the architect of Palestinian terror, American and Israeli officials are leaning over backwards to ease his path into government in Ramallah – even to keeping their distance until the election is in the bag. However, this hands-off policy has a price. It has given Abbas a free run that he is nimbly exploiting to lay down a few facts that the Bush administration and the Sharon government may come to regret later.
debkafile‘s Palestinian sources have learned how the incoming Palestinian leader perceives the post-election period when he is head of the Palestinian government. He is telling his confidants:
Let Israel go ahead with its planned evacuation of the Gaza Strip and Gush Katif. I have no objections. It’s not our affair and we won’t interfere with the process. But as soon as the elections are behind us, we’ll go straight to Stage B of the road map, a Palestinian state inside a year within temporary borders. Abbas notes that even after 56 years of independence, the Jewish state still has no permanent frontiers either.
Our debkafile‘s Palestinian sources take this to mean that Abbas wants no hand in Sharon’s disengagement and settlement removal plan. As debkafile reported in the past, neither the Palestinians nor the Egyptians were ever enthusiastic about it. They figured that the Israeli prime minister would go through with the withdrawals unilaterally and so relieve the Palestinians of having to recpicrogate at the negotiating table. As matters turned out, Abbas, unlike his predecessor, believes he can count on American, European and world backing for a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.
His acceptance of temporary borders is based on his judgment that the Palestinians have no chance of satisfying all their demands in negotiations with the Israelis; such issues as the 1948 refugees’ return to their old homes and the recognition of Jerusalem as Palestinian capital will be left outstanding. But Palestinian statehood need not be delayed. He also figures that by accepting half a loaf, the Palestinians can demand that Israel reciprocate and make do with temporary arrangements, such as the continuation of Palestinian terror and incitement to hatred and violence, notwithstanding Sharon’s stipulations for dialogue.
Above all, Abu Mazen is counting on the goodwill lavished on him by Washington and Jerusalem carrying over beyond January 9 and placing the Palestinians in position to redouble their demands. Abu Mazen believes he is empowered not only to sterilize the Sharon disengagement plan by shrugging off a Palestinian role, but also to scupper Sharon’s long-term objective to draw a line on the Gaza and northern West Bank pullbacks and make them Israel’s last territorial concessions. Playing down Sharon’s disengagement is Abbas’s way of minimizing its significance in the larger scheme of major territorial concessions to the Palestinian state.
These policy positions are sketched out in the Palestinian leader’s November 28 interview to Newsweek.
Asked if he likes Sharon’s idea of unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Abbas replied: We are ready to take [Gaza] when we rebuild our security apparatus. If you tell me [do it] now, I’ll say I cannot…
He goes on to admit that he has not reached agreement with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al Aqsa Brigades, although he accepts their participation in parliamentary elections and the Palestinian leadership.
He is thus preparing to argue that he has done his best to rein these organizations in, but the most he can obtain is a limited and temporary ceasefire. Nonetheless, negotiations must go forward [to Stage B of the roadmap] without further delays.
Abbas has used other occasions and interviews to announce that contentious issues would go before a Palestinian referendum. He thus snatched a tool that was placed in Sharon’s hands earlier on and which, had he availed himself of it in time, he might have used to good purpose for his own ends. For instance, on October 23, when the serious deterioration in Arafat’s health first came to light, Sharon could have used the changed Middle East situation as a pretext for postponing the pullout from the Gaza Strip, using the time gained for a popular referendum. But he stuck to his plan and missed his chance.
While Sharon tends to be insensitive to popular opinion and unable to harness it as a political instrument, Abu Mazen recognizes “people power” as a natural Palestinian modus. They have used, manipulated and inflamed public emotions time and again in mass rallies, rowdy funerals and violent anti-Israeli demonstrations to press demands and grievances. This week, people power served Western forces dramatically in the streets of Kiev. Abu Mazen is wily enough to wield it to serve his ends. Palestinian street rallies tend to boil over and out of control, as was seen at Arafat’s burial, but a referendum is just as good when its results are a foregone conclusion.
Aware of Abbas’s pre-negotiation maneuvers, the Sharon interview in the same Newsweek issue reflects a certain hardening of line. In answer to one question, he answered: “I am going to make every effort to coordinate our disengagement plan with the new Palestinian government, one that can assume control over areas we evacuate. This statement omitted the “unilateral” element of his original plan. Furthermore, he ignored the possibility that the new Palestinian government could assume control over evacuated areas, but would not want to – as indicated by Abu Mazen.
Asked if Israel will hand settlers’ houses to the Palestinians, Sharon stated: We will discuss that. He then stated: There will be no political initiatives other than the roadmap to peace.
This was a message to Abbas that he had better not toy with the prospect of a Palestinian state in 2005 and more Israeli withdrawals – unless he first carries out the prior, pre-conditional clauses of the roadmap with regard to terrorism and incitement.
His next sentence referred to Abu Mazen’s tolerance towards the Palestinian groups dedicated to terrorism: “And Israel will not evacuate under fire. We prefer a coordinated evacuation but we will not tolerate any attacks during our withdrawal. We are speaking about thousands of people, children, babies, women, old people, animals.”
The Israeli prime minister was telling the designated head of the Palestinian Authority: Don’t even think of the Hamas, Jihad Islami and Al Aqsa Brigades making good on their plan to attack Israeli troops and civilians at the vulnerable point of their evacuation. If that is what they intend, Israel will not go through with the pullout.
Both leaders continue to exchange smiles and pats on the back in the run-up to the January election and promise to rendezvous after the vote. But their words often negate those smiles. The hard bargaining is already in full swing.

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