Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, January 10, 2005
So, in what must surely be seen around the world as a shocking upset, Mahmoud Abbas has been duly elected to lead the Palestinian Authority. A journalist acquaintance from my synagogue once commented that Yasser Arafat was unquestionably the most legitimate ruler in the Arab world: the only one with anything resembling wide popular support, not only in his own polity but across the Arab world, and the only won to have won something like a real election. Mahmoud Abbas has an even greater claim to legitimacy, having won a reasonably free and fair election and having achieved his pre-election status as sole serious candidate through ordinary diplomacy rather than the diplomacy of the Kalashnikov. It will be interesting to see what he does with that legitimacy, and how Israel deals with the fact that they now face a Palestinian leader with serious democratic credentials. Abbas has called Natan Sharansky's (and, for that matter, the Bush Administration's) bluff.

I don't want to be misunderstood: there is a lot more to democracy than holding a single election. The Palestinian areas still suffer from outrageous levels of corruption, the thorough politicization of their economic life, rampant gangsterism, the utter lack of anything like a public administration or basic public services, no semblance of a liberal culture, etc. But the premise of the transformationists in the Bush Administration, and of the liberal right-wing opposition to Sharon in Israel (folks like the "new" Netanyahu, or more than anyone the aforementioned Sharansky) has been that democratic forms will nurture democratic cultures, and democratic cultures will be inclined to solve the ultimately tractable conflicts of the Middle East in a peaceful manner. In that sense, unquestionably it seems to me, Abbas has called their bluff.

So who is Mahmoud Abbas? And what is he going to do? My own feelings fall somewhere between the hopeful tone of this piece by Bret Stephens (no soft-headed peacenik, I might note) and this highly pessimistic piece from a few days ago by Charles Krauthammer. Abbas has actually, I think, been quite clear. He is opposed to the intifadeh, not on the grounds that terrorism is inherently wrong or evil, but on the grounds that it has failed, massively. But he has quite clearly opposed it, quite clearly called for some kind of settlement, for something more than a cease-fire. Krauthammer and others who are saying that Abbas has positioned himself no differently from Yasser Arafat are considerably distorting the picture. Yasser Arafat was the operational leader as well as the symbol of one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups. He never separated himself from the practice of terror; indeed, he continued to orchestrate a terror aparatus from his post-Oslo perch as head of the Palestinian quasi-state. He was overwhelmingly responsible for the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the immiseration of the Palestinian Arab people. None of these things are true of Abbas. Abbas does not run the various terrorist groups in the P.A. territories, nor does he have Arafat's purse to bribe those he does not control. He is calling for an end to corruption, rather than embodying its worst excesses. He is a vast change from Arafat, and there is reason for hope in Jerusalem and in Washington.

But. Abbas has also been clear about a few other things. He has been abundantly clear that he is not going to fight a civil war between Palestinian Arab factions. He has called for the disarmament of the various militias and terrorist groups, but he has explicitly said several times that he will not disarm them by force. And while he has said - in Arabic - that it is time to end the intifadeh, he has not told his people what a settlement of the conflict means - that Israel will never accept a negotiated end to its own existence, and hence there will be no return to sovereign Israeli territory after such a settlement. Abbas knows that what Barak offered at Taba is more than Israel will give now, and just about all that Israel could ever consider agreeing to. But he has not said that to his people.

So: we know where Abbas stands, pretty well, but we don't know how he will - or can - respond to a challenge from the rejectionists within the Palestinian Arab camp. That is to say: we don't know whether he can be intimidated by the gunmen.

I always resisted talking this way about Arafat, because Arafat was a known quantity, and the leopard does not change his spots. I opposed Oslo from the beginning precisely because I thought empowering Arafat without requiring him to explicitly limit his own claims and ambitions (as Oslo did not) was utter folly. Consistently, throughout his career, Arafat chose the path of revolutionary leadership and the fomenting of chaos over the path of statesmanship and state-building.

But I also resisted talking this way because I know how the logic leads. If Abbas is weak, but willing, ultimately, to deal with Israel and make peace if he can get into a stronger position, then friends of peace in Israel and elsewhere will want to strengthen him. They will try to do this by giving him a chance to prove himself ready to fight terror, and if he does not, they will give him another chance. That's precisely how Israelis talked themselves into continuing to deal with Arafat after he proved within the first year of Oslo that he was absolutely untrustworthy: they kept reminding themselves that they needed a deal, that only Arafat could deliver, and that the alternative to Arafat was either Hamas or chaos. That's a logic that leads only to disaster, and I'm not going to follow it.

Even if Abbas is sincere about wanting a settlement, if he can't deliver then there is little Israel or anyone else can do to build him up. That's the funny thing about facing something that resembles a democracy: Abbas' strength will come from his people and their support, not from Israel or the U.S. and their support.

So how should Israel respond? Israel should respond by engaging Abbas, but also by continuing the unilateral withdrawal. The whole point of the unilateral moves initiated by Sharon do not include the existence of someone to talk to on the other side. The primary premise is: that if Israel does not disengage from the Palestinians then the Palestinians and the world community will shift inevitably away from a two-state solution and towards a one-state solution that would be majority-Arab. (The secondary premises are: that the settlements have less of a security rationale than they used to, and so can be safely surrendered; that they are an enormous drain on the country's resources and weaken the country's military readiness; that, if once perhaps they were a useful bargaining chip that brought the Palestinians to the table, now they do nothing but feed extremism and rejectionism as well as blackening Israel's image abroad; and - most important - that Israel's negotiating position vis-a-vis the Palestinians is always weak if the Palestinians know that Israel needs a deal and has no alternative, so unilateral separation is a way of cutting the Gordian knot.) These premises all obtain regardless of Abbas' ultimate character. So Sharon should proceed.

What Abbas will control by his behavior is not Israel's pace of separation by removing settlements and redeploying the IDF, but rather whether the IDF continues to operate in territories he controls (Israel will not surrender the right to pursue terrorists or retaliate for their attacks); whether his quasi-state gets access to the Israeli economy and is able to develop economic ties beyond its immediate neighbors; the character and details of the ultimate border, water-sharing and other arrangements between Israel and what would become a Palestinian State - all the things that matter if he actually cares about building a state and giving his people a better life and control over their lives.

But Israel should not kid itself that it has a win-win situation on its hands. Abbas is, as I said, a democratically-elected leader. Suppose terrorism continues, and Abbas condemns that terrorism (and is genuinely free from responsibility for it in the sense that he keeps his distance from the groups that plan and commit atrocities) but also condemns Israeli "state terrorism" and calls for an international force to separate Israeli and Palestinian. Israel will have a harder time opposing that call now than before - after all: Abbas is the legitimate, duly-elected leader of his people, and the world community can hardly ignore a call for help. Israel may wind up practically losing their right to hot pursuit, as well as losing some of their attempts to achieve a favorable territorial position in the interim (after a withdrawal but before a final deal) if, say, Tony Blair offers to send troops to region on condition that Israel withdraws to the Green Line.

Similarly, Israel's vulnerability to the charge that it is a "racist" state may well increase in the short term, whether or not it withdraws from settlements with alacrity. Abbas is going to tour the world and say, basically, that Israeli unilateralism is a way of positioning Israel to indefinitely defer the final-status questions of sovereignty, of Jerusalem and of the "right of return" and that the Palestinian quasi-state he's been left with is deliberately too weak and too dependent to ever be able to deliver what Israel demands. He will call on the nations of Europe to pressure Israel to deliver a just peace, and he will have a stronger hand precisely because he is democratically elected and not involved in the terror apparatus.

And I'm not sure Israel is helping its case by floating some of its more "interesting" peace proposals. You know which ones I'm talking about: getting Egypt to give Gaza some land from the Sinai, in exchange for free passage across Israel to Jordan; transferring the triangle region in the Galillee to a Palestinian state in exchange for the major settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria that would be annexed to Israel; that sort of thing. Israel is on the one hand getting itself all excited about ideas that depend on a lot of moving parts to work (has anyone gotten positive feedback from Egypt on giving on chunk of the Sinai away, may I ask? wouldn't that be a good thing to get before you start mouthing off in public?) and, more ominously, reinforcing the charge that it is a "racist" state by suggesting that Israeli *citizens* who are Arab might be transferred to a Palestinian state. Doesn't someone have to ask their permission first? I mean, couldn't these people at least talk about holding binding plebescites in the triangle and in the settlement blocs to determine their ultimate disposition, rather than treating Arabs as chattel whose title is a matter to be negotiated?

But that's ultimately a detail; none of these proposals are coming directly from the Israeli government, and you can't control what freelancers say (especially in Israel, where respect for the government as the sole legitimate organ for statesmanship is at a dangerous low on both the right and the left). The important fact for setting expectations is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs - not only in the territories but in Israel proper - reject the justice of the existence of a Jewish state. Most Arabs would probably say they are perfectly willing to live with Jews as fellow citizens of a bi-national state; that's the mainstream position. The extremes - which are non-negligible minorities - on one side accept the necessity of a two-state solution and on the other believe that the Jews should be pushed into the sea. None of this should be surprising to anyone. But that balance of opinion suggests that a democratically elected Palestinian leadership is going to be no more accommodating of reality - the reality that Israel will not agree to dismantle itself and put itself out of existence - than a Palestinian strongman of the old type.

I'm not suggesting that Israel is going to be worse off facing Abbas than she was before. I'm just saying that the most optimistic script - that democratic elections are win-win for everyone and will pave the way for a two-state solution and peace - is unrealistic. Democracy means rule by the people. The Palestinian Arab people do not accept Israel's legitimacy. So whatever else happens and however much progress is possible, there isn't going to be *peace* any time soon.

But things could get better. They've been getting better for a while now, since Operation Defensive Shield. So here's to things getting better, and we'll see where that leads.