Finding the Lost Peace

Finding the Lost Peace

Mini Teaser: Arafat's death opened a real window for peace--but it won't stay open for long.

by Author(s): Dennis Ross

In concluding my book last year, I suggested that we might find the missing peace when Yasir Arafat passed from the scene and it became possible to get beyond the dysfunction he cultivated. Little did I suspect he would die before the end of 2004. Now he is gone.

Palestinians saw, as one of his close colleagues observed, that Arafat would prefer to "destroy everything rather than let the world deal with someone else." Another of his senior colleagues confided to me after his death that he was the "father of our chaos." In truth, Arafat became an impediment to change not only between Palestinians and Israelis but among Palestinians as well. And judging from their change in mood after his death, Palestinians knew it. Think how ironic it is that only 45 percent of Palestinians said they were optimistic about the future before Arafat became ill, and nearly 60 percent said they were optimistic shortly after his death.

Arafat left a political system characterized by corruption, ineptitude and a destructive competition among rival factions, all designed to make it difficult for anyone ever to emerge as an alternative to him. Transforming such a system would be a daunting task in the best of circumstances. And, of course, even with the Israeli decision on disengagement, four and a half years of war have not made these the best of circumstances for Palestinians.

Managing the Succession

The conventional wisdom at the time of Arafat's death maintained that Arafat was the only source of authority among Palestinians and that his departure would weaken and factionalize his Fatah movement and cause Hamas to challenge it for power. The leadership void would produce a competition for power that would likely turn violent.

I doubted the conventional wisdom--not because I questioned the existence of these factors, but because I knew Palestinians feared the eruption of violence and that this very fear would unify the factions in Fatah and make Hamas and others reluctant to challenge it--at least in the near term. In fact, there was virtually no Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence after Arafat's death. Instead, there was a smooth transition and quick agreement on holding elections. For all Palestinians, internal violence of the sort we have seen in Iraq was simply unthinkable. Palestinians fear dividing and weakening themselves further, and there is a strong predisposition against it.

There is no guarantee that intra-Palestinian violence will never occur; indeed, there have been many incidents of such violence, but the fear of civil war is deeply rooted. Moreover, the widespread support for elections as the mechanism for peacefully managing the competition for power caused Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades to reconsider turning to intra-Palestinian violence to undermine the voting.

Mahmoud Abbas--Abu Mazen--won the election to succeed Arafat, and he did so running on a clear anti-violence platform. On top of being consistently against the violence--the "militarization of the intifada"--Abu Mazen also tapped into the public's desire to restore normal life. Palestinians came to see in Abu Mazen someone who might be able to end the intifada. It had not ended the occupation, only cemented it. It had not ended Palestinian suffering, only extended it. It had not made life better, only produced more deprivation.

The Bir Zeit University exit polls taken on the day of the elections confirmed the desire for "normalcy." More than 83 percent of the Palestinians who voted wanted good governance and for the Palestinian Authority to function effectively; 81.3 percent wanted the economy and jobs to be restored; 80.6 percent wanted law and order to be imposed; 76.8 percent wanted the Israeli checkpoints lifted; and more than three-quarters wanted talks with the Israelis to be resumed.

Abu Mazen was seen as the agent of change--and he received a mandate. However, the test is still to come, particularly if the new Palestinian leadership decides to crack down seriously on those who are committed to using violence against the Israelis. To be successful, Abu Mazen will need to act out of character. He never craved power, and this made him appealing to the reformers--but it also calls into question whether he has the determination, tenacity and even ruthlessness that might be required to pressure different factions to change their behavior. In the past, he would walk away from the process whenever Arafat humiliated him. With Arafat gone, let us hope he will no longer consider such an option.

Assessing Abu Mazen's Strategy

Abu Mazen has operated on the premise that Palestinians have the responsibility to provide the Israelis security. In return, the Israelis have the responsibility to provide the Palestinians freedom. On a number of occasions, he told me that Arafat had been wrong to permit the violence against the Israelis. Violence, he said, would "produce nothing from the Israelis and [would] cost us dearly." He was, of course, right, but how did he intend to end the violence?

His answer has been co-optation, not confrontation. He has focused on achieving an agreement among the militant factions of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the popular resistance committees to stop all attacks against the Israelis. In 2003, when he was prime minister, he reasoned that the Palestinian public was weary of the violence and that the groups (and Arafat) would only ignore the popular mood at their peril. His assessment may have been correct, but it left the Israelis out of the equation. To be sure, he wanted to end all attacks as a way of getting the Israelis to lift the siege. And he believed that if there were no attacks against the Israelis, they would have no reason to maintain the checkpoints and attack or arrest the militants.

However, Abu Mazen failed to take into account how Israel would react to what it perceived as Hamas rebuilding itself, developing new capabilities for attacks and preparing the ground for renewed terror inside Israel. In Israeli eyes Hamas was only holding back on attacks while using the time of the 2003 hudna (truce) to prepare for the resumption of terror at a time of its choosing. As it saw Hamas planning new attacks and actually testing more effective Qassam rockets, Israel did not wait. It began to make arrests that resulted in shoot-outs with wanted members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Shortly thereafter, the ceasefire of 2003 gave way to suicide bombings.

In 2005 Abu Mazen has clearly needed a new approach. The lesson from 2003 is that no ceasefire will endure if it is not clearly understood by the two sides the same way. Much like with the Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza, the ceasefire might be a unilateral Palestinian decision, but it must be implemented mutually. Unilateral decisions leave far too much scope for misunderstanding and disappointment and, in the case of a ceasefire, too much room for feeling betrayed.

No ceasefire can work if both sides fail to have exactly the same understanding of what is permitted and not permitted. While there have been some understandings between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen--notably on the Israelis stopping targeted killings in return for calm--the basic outlines of the ceasefire remain vague. The Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank has given both sides an incentive to preserve the ceasefire, but it remains fragile, with Islamic Jihad, in particular, firing mortars and Qassam rockets in Gaza and ambushing several Israelis in the West Bank--and the Israelis declaring that their restraint will not be applied any longer to Islamic Jihad.

It is important to remember that Abu Mazen sought the ceasefire because he did not feel able to confront groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, and because he knew that nothing could change without an end to the violence. His plan was to produce calm and an improved daily reality for the Palestinian public. The longer the calm prevailed, the more time he would have to build respect for the law and professional security forces. With enough time, Abu Mazen could succeed in having reliable security forces, an environment supported by the Palestinian public and the ability to deal with those groups that violate the law. In other words, the theory of Abu Mazen's approach has been to create a rule of law; anyone who violates it will have to pay the price. He has in mind a Palestinian rubric under which to justify forceful actions against those who carry out acts of terror and violence against the Israelis.

To create such a rubric, Abu Mazen also sought to embed the groups in a genuine political process. In fact, when he concluded an understanding with the groups on preserving tahdiya (calm) for a year, part of the agreement provided for the groups to participate in the elections. Abu Mazen wants the groups to be politicized. He wants them to be part of the political system so that they are also bound by the limits of the system. Once they are part of the Legislative Council, they will observe the laws that it adopts--or so his theory goes.

Essay Types: Essay