The heat is on

Expectations for what Mahmoud Abbas can do for the Palestinians are high, but will he be able to deliver?


Simon Tisdall
January 11, 2005 8:10PM (UTC)

Britain, the United States and moderate Arab countries will begin a concerted drive this week to push Palestine's president-elect, Mahmoud Abbas, toward a historic post-Arafat compromise with Israel. But what these states and their leaders want does not necessarily coincide with Palestinian needs and aspirations, or with what Abbas can deliver in practice. Like any politician, Abbas made numerous election promises. They included the return of millions of refugees and of territory lost in 1967 and a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.

Ordinary voters who put their faith in the democratic process will hold Abbas to these pledges. Many Palestinians feel they have already compromised enough. And even allowing for campaign hyperbole, Abbas' room for maneuver is limited. From the moment he takes office later this week, the heat will be on. Expectations are running dangerously high.

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Anxious to exert influence and prioritize the issue, Britain will soon convene a conference to help the Palestinian Authority prepare for statehood. It is also working through the European Union. But much is at stake for British Prime Minister Tony Blair personally. He is one of those who argued that the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. He has expended political capital, often in vain, on persuading the United States to pursue the "road map" for peace.

"If we can help the Palestinians to develop that basic infrastructure of a viable state, then [the United States] is prepared to do the negotiations that make it viable in terms of its territory too," Blair said on BBC television on the weekend.

Having mostly stood aside during his first term, George W. Bush now says he wants a Palestinian state by 2008. But Bush also has other motives. His broader aim is creating a stable, democratic, pro-American Middle East, including Iraq. He is not about to seriously squeeze his main regional ally, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whatever Blair says. Instead, the onus in Washington and London remains on the Palestinians to be "realistic" and give ground on core issues.

"The definition of 'realistic' in this context is what Israel will put up with," said Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Chatham House think tank. "That is so ingrained in U.S. and British thinking that they just don't realize that it might not be possible for Abbas, because he can't bring his people with him. "The Israelis don't put much store by the road map. The Palestinians could get stuck at stage two, meaning a virtual state with borders still to be defined and no guarantee they'll get what they want."

Attitudes in the Arab world remain deeply ambivalent. Egypt and Jordan are broadly supportive of a compromise. But rejectionist Syria and Lebanon, backed by Iran, may encourage Abbas' hard-line opponents, and hope that he fails. A fatal Hezbollah attack launched on the weekend from southern Lebanon was their contribution to democracy.

Israel's immediate priority is a complete cessation of terrorism. Abbas, who says intifada violence was a mistake, is a man of peace who claims -- perhaps overoptimistically -- that a lasting cease-fire can be agreed to with militant factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

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Sharon's other priority is the Gaza withdrawal later this year. Some Palestinians see this as a trap entailing the permanent loss of large swaths of the West Bank. In a Knesset speech on Gaza last autumn, Sharon exacerbated such fears. While reiterating his commitment to a two-state solution, he said: "I truly believe that this disengagement will strengthen Israel's hold over territory that is essential to our existence."

Achieving a cease-fire and peacefully regaining control of Gaza would significantly boost Abbas' leadership while giving Sharon what he wants. But even if that happens, the clear danger for Palestinians is that the peace process, such as it is, will grind to a halt again. Then the men of violence could overwhelm the man of peace.


Simon Tisdall

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