The peaceful and moderately fair Palestinian election of Mahmoud Abbas on January 9 spawned an optimistic fervor among Israelis and Palestinians alike-not to mention foreign intellectuals and policy makers. The Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza allowed most Palestinians to reach voting centers, militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas did not terrorize Palestinians at the polls, and Israeli and Palestinian officials returned to the negotiating table. The optimism soon faded. On February 26, the Damascus-based wing of Islamic Jihad bombed a Tel-Aviv nightclub. The suicide bombing-the first terrorist attack since the ceasefire negotiated by Sharon and Abbas at the Sharm el Sheik meeting on February 8-drove a wedge into the peace efforts. The attack underscores the difficulty Abbas faces in consolidating power and demonstrating his control of militant Palestinian groups, and it highlights Syria's ability to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through its patronage of these factions.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, Sharon and Abbas have tried to maintain the momentum of diplomacy. The time is ripe for a cautious reprise of the negotiation process between Israeli and Palestinian officials, paralleled by the successful withdrawal of settlements from Gaza and an effort by Abbas to merge the disenfranchised resistance groups into the political and security mainstream. If the ceasefire leads to the signing of a new roadmap, both sides will ultimately have to define a clear vision of the map's final destination in order to circumvent the failures of past accords. And while bringing Syria to the negotiating table would increase the likelihood of a successful ceasefire with the militant factions, concurrent negotiations between Syria, Israel and the Palestinians have had a detrimental affect on Israeli-Palestinian agreements in the past.
Recent events suggest the emergence of a new stage of détente between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Despite the suicide bombing in Tel-Aviv and the proposal to build 3,500 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, negotiations have continued. Sharon fears that if Israel does not proceed with military and political retaliation for terrorist activity, resistance groups will continue their terrorist campaigns. Yet he has tempered Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory and has ordered against the demolition of Palestinian homes. Sharon realizes that Abbas is the best negotiating partner he could hope for, and understands the constraints on Abbas's power. He therefore does not want to prematurely sever negotiations. Abbas, in return, publicly denounces terrorism and has deployed his troops in order to reign in the militants. He has engaged the militant groups in negotiations, urging them to join the political sphere and disarm.
Due to his iconic status among Palestinians for having brought their struggle to the attention of the world, Yasser Arafat was able to maintain control as leader of the Palestinians despite the opposition of militant PLO factions. Abbas will not benefit from such a legacy, and will have to pursue both a diplomatic and a military agenda if he is to curb the activities of the militant factions. Abbas's strategy should be two fold: on the one hand, he must engage in negotiations with these groups, particularly Hamas, in an effort to lure them into the political arena by granting positions as security officers, cabinet members, and seats in parliament. In conjunction, Abbas will have to ensure that the security forces patrolling Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza control the militants.
The extent to which Abbas will be able to exert control over the different factions remains uncertain. In contrast to the Palestinian Authority's security forces, the Palestinian militant groups are organized, coordinated, and experienced. The sight of many Palestinian security forces in a motley assortment of uniforms deployed in Gaza on January 21 is indicative of this problem. The Palestinian militant groups have gained experience and knowledge of the territory during the four year Intifada, while the Palestinian Authority's security forces have watched from the sidelines. Creating a uniform security apparatus will require intensive training.
To elicit cooperation from the factions, Abbas will have to undo two decades of hostilities between Arafat's Al-Fatah branch, which dominated the Palestinian leadership, and the militant factions. Tensions began in the 1980s and culminated with an attempted Syrian-sponsored mutiny within the PLO in 1983. Syria has coddled estranged factions that rose out of the PLO, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as a means of putting pressure on Israel to abandon the Golan Heights and to stymie the bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Syria has done so by allowing Palestinian militant groups to run their offices from Damascus and acting as a conduit for Iranian arms. The relationship between Syria and the groups poses a threat to Abbas's efforts to exert control over terrorist activity.
One encouraging sign in this effort has been the informal ceasefire that Hamas and others have agreed to. If Abbas can successfully persuade the militant groups to transform into political parties through concessions, such an event would carry its own repercussions for the Palestinians, Israelis and international community. The successful incorporation of Hamas into Palestinian politics and the security apparatus has implications for the outcome of the new Palestinian government. The policies and conduct of a Palestinian government that grants a voice to militant groups would likely be inimical to the democratic model advocated by the US and Europe. Hamas is popular among the Palestinian community and is likely to do well in the upcoming parliamentary elections. It therefore behooves Abbas to curry favor among Palestinians by providing them with the social services currently provided by Hamas, demonstrating to them his legitimacy as a spokesman for their cause.
In the coming months, Sharon's position will face a domestic challenge that is as serious as the one facing Abbas. Without a strong backing of the disengagement plan, Sharon's government may dissolve. While passing the annual budget marked a strong victory in the process, Sharon will ultimately have to face the settlers themselves and the possibility of Palestinian violence during the withdrawal, much like the violence that occurred during the Lebanon withdrawal in 2000.
Arafat's death catapulted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront of the Middle East agenda. It is clear that the intifada has depleted the energy of both Palestinians and Israelis, and many are prepared for the first time to accept the vision of peaceful cohabitation. While optimism is justified, the complexities of domestic Israeli and Palestinian politics, coupled with the dynamics of Syrian-Palestinian relations, will make the task arduous, albeit worthwhile. Considering the vulnerability of both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, such a process should move slowly and cautiously.
Nitzan Goldberger works in the Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.