Renewed, if somewhat less euphoric talk of a historic opportunity for Middle East peace accompanied Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas both heading to and returning from his May 26, 2005 summit with President George W. Bush at the White House. Yet the opportunity, of which much has been written since Abbas’ victory in a presidential poll in January, is primarily remarkable for the absence of any plan for exploiting it.

The atmospherics were indeed warm and pleasant in the sun-splashed Rose Garden as Bush and Abbas emerged to meet the press after their White House conference. Bush was effusive, if awkward in his personal praise for Abbas, pointedly referring to him as “Mr. President” (rather than “Chairman,” as the late Yasser Arafat was called in Washington) and offering this summary of the Palestinian’s campaign platform: “Vote for me—I’m for peace, and I believe in democracy.” Yet Abbas had flown across the Atlantic seeking more than a presidential slap on the back.

Abbas’ White House mission was a relatively straightforward affair. Having been informed by Washington that he is the “partner for peace” who the US and Israel claim has been missing since July 2000, he was determined to find out if there is in fact a partnership on offer. Mindful of Bush’s and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s current preoccupation with Israel’s unilateral disengagement initiative, his specific agenda was to examine whether plans are afoot to implement the “road map” after Israel leaves the Gaza Strip, as it is scheduled to do in mid-August 2005. The road map, a phased plan for arriving at negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sponsored by the Quartet of the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia, has not yet completed its first phase. Abbas came to Washington to point this out, and to make the case for jump-starting a meaningful process that achieves concrete and timely results.

The head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) heard encouraging words in this vein. Bush once again called upon Israel to cease settlement expansion, specifically mentioning Jerusalem in this respect, and clarified assurances he had provided Sharon in April 2004 by noting that the details of any peace settlement will need to be negotiated with the Palestinians, not only with Washington. His statement that “any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties and changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to” was particularly welcome to Palestinian ears. Yet the prospects that the Bush administration will match its rhetoric with actual deeds are at best slim. The end result could well be a case of inertia unleashing a chain reaction, with potentially far-reaching implications for Palestinians, Israelis and the future of their conflict.

Over-Interpreted Signals

There is, to be sure, a sense of rejuvenated engagement in Washington when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where Bush’s first term was characterized by partisan neglect, 2005 has seen growing US involvement to manage the conflict and mobilize relevant developments in the service of regional US policy objectives. Thus Washington has actively promoted efforts to ensure a smooth Israeli departure from the Gaza Strip, dispatching outgoing World Bank head James Wolfensohn to oversee Israeli-PA “coordination” on behalf of the Quartet. The Bush administration claimed credit for and ascribed regional significance to a Palestinian leadership transition in which elections produced a pragmatic victor. Notably, the administration also compelled the Sharon government to suspend particularly conspicuous settlement initiatives such as one in early 2005 that would have confiscated all Arab property in East Jerusalem owned by non-residents.

Signals of enhanced US engagement continued to flash at the May 26 summit, with Bush promising to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to facilitate “coordination” talks when the withdrawal date draws near and pledging to transfer $50 million directly to the PA for new housing in Gaza. The aid package may have been intended to ameliorate the White House’s embarrassment at its failure to secure unconditional approval for the $200 subvention to the PA announced in the 2005 State of the Union address. Congress stipulated that $50 million of that money would pay for Israeli construction of “high-speed terminals” at checkpoints, and that the Women’s Zionist Organization of America would be given $2 million to spend on Palestinian public health. The rest of the tranche will not, in all likelihood, go directly to the PA.

But one would be mistaken to interpret personal warmth and other signs of engagement as the initial stirrings of a sustained US effort to promote a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. Pending the Rice mission around the time of disengagement, the Bush administration has not seen fit to send a high-level envoy to seize the opportunity so widely lauded as historic. The task of Lt. Gen. William Ward, appointed by Rice shortly after the Palestinian election, was until quite recently restricted to vetting Abbas’ progress in “consolidating” the PA’s security forces—that is to say, eliminating those elements that might use armed force for something other than a crackdown on Hamas or other militant groups. Ward’s original mandate, it is important to recall, was but a pale reflection of the 2001 mandates of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, whose futile missions first clarified the extent to which the Bush administration had accepted Israel’s view of the intifada as a security crisis rather than a political one. The recent expansion of Ward’s brief to include security coordination between Israel and the PA merely reprises the brief of ex-CIA director George Tenet when President Bill Clinton was still in the White House, and so underlines the limits the US has imposed upon its own engagement since the intifada broke out.

More to the point, while Bush used his Rose Garden comments to reiterate Israel’s obligations under the road map, he did not provide the explicit assurance sought by Abbas that Israel can no longer decree when the road map’s phases will begin. Gaza disengagement, Bush said instead, is “an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a return to the road map.”

In fact, Bush’s statement after the US election that he is personally committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2009 above all confirms that the formal 2005 deadline for the same objective enumerated in the road map has become meaningless. The reason, in a word, is Sharon.

“The Pre-Road Map Phase”

Seen from Washington, Sharon’s unilateral disengagement initiative has produced both opportunities and constraints. In the first column, the prospect of Israeli settlements being permanently uprooted from occupied Palestinian territory—something that never occurred during the Clinton years—will be utilized to demonstrate that the more hard-nosed approach espoused by the Republicans produces real rather than ephemeral results. In the second, the reason Sharon is prepared to implement such measures reflects his determination to transform the nature of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.

Rather than looking to US-sponsored bilateral negotiations to produce a comprehensive peace treaty, Sharon is in the process of imposing a new relationship with the Palestinians negotiated directly with Washington that in his view will be sustainable for a generation, with or without Palestinian consent and cooperation. If Washington is prepared to support him, Sharon is ready to implement a further series of unilateral withdrawals that, while consolidating Israel’s position within the Occupied Territories, will involve real and visible movement on a scale exceeding redeployments from Palestinian population centers conducted pursuant to the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995. If, however, Bush insists upon a revival of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Sharon will give him nothing, and stall and procrastinate unless (or until) he is literally compelled to part with existing assets.

Given this menu of options, conscious as ever of domestic political calculations, and preoccupied himself with Iraq and his “transformational” vision for the region, Bush seems almost certain to take the path of least resistance. Seen from the White House, it simply makes no sense to provoke a costly conflict with a close and politically influential ally in order to achieve less than is being offered. The price Sharon is demanding in return—chiefly, endorsement of the West Bank separation barrier and US recognition of strategic settlement blocs and the Jewish character of the Israeli state—are things Bush is inclined to accept even without excessive prodding.

Oddly enough, Sharon was also in Washington during the week of May 26. Though, as the Israeli press reported, he did not meet with US officials so as to avoid uncomfortable questions about his plans upon completion of the Gaza disengagement, the Israeli premier did engage in diplomacy through the speech he gave to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Where Bush offered rote reminders of what Israel must do to fulfil the terms of the road map, Sharon assured his audience that they were still living in “the pre-road map phase.” He reminded them, moreover, of Bush’s April 14, 2004 letter that, in Sharon’s words, guarantees that “the major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria will remain an integral part of the state of Israel.”

Even if one posits, as some commentators have, that the tonal dissonance between Bush’s Rose Garden comments and Sharon’s AIPAC speech is a portent of US-Israeli discord in the post-disengagement future, it is at least clear that the Bush administration has not yet attempted to compel Sharon to part with any component of his strategic vision. By choice or by default, the Bush administration is still acting, in the words of former Clinton official Aaron David Miller, as “Israel’s lawyer.” If the White House does adopt a tougher stance toward its Israeli ally, this may come too late for the “partner for peace” in Ramallah.

Hitting the Ceiling

Mahmoud Abbas, of course, is involved in an entirely different ballgame than is Sharon. Having been elected on a pragmatic political program, his main priority at the White House was to demonstrate to his people that his approach not only works, but is more effective than the militant path preached by the Islamists and powerful factions within his own Fatah movement. Not less importantly, he needed to return from Washington with enough ammunition in the form of concrete achievements to confront domestic rivals—chiefly rival Fatah power centers—who are blocking his attempts to reconfigure the Palestinian political system and consolidate his mandate.

Abbas views the latter, represented by the Fatah Central Committee and including powerful PA officials such as Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei and recently cashiered security chiefs, as his more immediate and therefore primary obstacle. To overcome these entrenched elites, he has formed an alliance of convenience with more activist, popular and comparatively disenfranchised Fatah leaders such as the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, as well as the political wing of Hamas. These leaders share Abbas’ interest in speedy legislative elections, which are expected to accelerate the process of leadership renewal within Fatah and the political system as a whole. Abbas’ problem is that he will lose credibility if these elections are delayed beyond their announced date of July 17, and lose authority if they are held before he is able to deliver significant results on the ground. Given that many Fatah reformers have come out in favor of delay because of Abbas’ meager achievements, and given that the vested interests that control the PA-Fatah bureaucracy will remain powerful enough to prevent real change until confronted at the ballot box, speedy elections are unlikely to be a winning proposition. The Palestinian president’s only alternative, effective US pressure on Israel rapidly and visibly to ameliorate Palestinian living conditions, seems equally unlikely to materialize.

If achieving progress toward a genuine peace process is of critical importance to Abbas, the organic connection between his diplomatic achievements and his domestic position is even more so. Yet, it is now clear that the one thing Bush will not do on the eve of disengagement is unveil a new diplomatic initiative that will further complicate Sharon’s domestic position. The political ceiling, it seems, is the second phase of the road map: a Palestinian state with provisional borders, and something Bush would be more than pleased to tout in a region riven by increasing levels of anti-American hostility. It is a development that would greatly gladden Sharon, whose strategic objective remains a long-term interim agreement, yet one that Abbas, for precisely the same reason, has adamantly rejected since his ill-fated 2003 premiership.

Getting to Yes

By all accounts, Mahmoud Abbas and his advisers left Washington positively delighted. On the one hand, they ascribed real meaning to Bush’s pronouncements. Secondly, given that Abbas was elected less on the basis of wholesale Palestinian identification with his agenda than the belief that he can achieve it, the PA delegation feels the summit provided enough evidence to validate and sustain this belief among Palestinians. “We have noticed and felt an American commitment,” Abbas explained to the Washington Post after the summit. “Perhaps this commitment manifests itself through the [expanded] mandate of General Ward.”

The PA’s enthusiasm seems at best premature. Alongside his mentions of Israeli obligations and the 1949 armistice lines, Bush also confirmed suspicions that his definition of Palestinian freedom is more about the trappings of democracy than full Palestinian sovereignty or an end to Israeli occupation. Responding to a reporter’s question about control over Gaza’s airspace after Israel’s scheduled disengagement, he stated, “Now as a democracy evolves and people see that this is a government fully capable of sustaining democratic institutions and adhering to rule of law and transparency and puts strong anti-corruption devices in place, answers to the will of the people, than it becomes easier to deal with issues such as airspace.”

Yet it is precisely because Abbas needs to respond to the will of his people, for whom national liberation either trumps personal freedom or is inseparable from it, that Abbas’ forecast seems rather bleak. Having seen Abbas to the airport without making concrete commitments on the real issues, Washington’s subsequent failure to deliver on its implicit promises in the weeks and months to come could well constitute a critical turning point for the Palestinian leader. For just as real success at the White House would have significantly empowered Abbas in Palestine, so failure will give his rivals—who are to be found chiefly within the ranks of Fatah—a vital shot in the arm. If they play their cards well and form the right alliances, they can exploit his inability to deliver to eventually bring him down a second time.

Should Abbas fall once more, the implications are potentially enormous. Because the Palestinian political system has only begun the process of transformation from one dominated by a single individual to one led by institutions, Abbas is more likely to be replaced by fragmentation and chaos than either Marwan Barghouti or Hamas.

At the same time, as shown by Bush’s heavy focus on the personage of Mahmoud Abbas, the modestly invigorated US commitment to moderating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost wholly predicated upon the survival of a single individual in power. Nor would Abbas’ line of credit in Washington be extended if he were to fend off internal challengers by altering his pragmatic rhetoric to appear to his own people as a stauncher defender of Palestinian aspirations, rather than as the best interlocutor with the US and Israel. At the World Economic Forum in Jordan in late May, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) stated in blunt fashion the attitude toward Palestinian “rejectionism” that is probably also the Bush administration’s default position: “Until we have someone on the other side who is willing to say ‘yes,’ we’re not going to continue to prostitute the American presidency to people who aren’t serious.” For Abbas, the most urgent problem is not whether he can say “yes” to the US and Israel, but whether he will ever be asked the right questions.

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani, Chris Toensing "Mahmoud Abbas’ Mission Improbable," Middle East Report Online, June 01, 2005.

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