Abbas must unify moderates to end intifada
Many were happy to see the end of Yasser Arafat’s corrupt rule and welcomed the recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian leader. Under the Oslo Accords, signed by Arafat in 1993, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority agreed to remove the provision in the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and to renounce violence and terror as negotiating tools. But the subsequent 11 years were marred by “intifada,” as the Palestinians failed to comply with the provisions of the agreement and continued to use terrorism as a weapon against Israel.Abbas now faces the challenge of ending the intifada, reforming a corrupt government, and restarting peace talks with Israel. While Arafat was shunned by the US administration for failing to control violence, President Bush has indicated that Abbas’s election would help revive the internationally-backed “road map” peace negotiations and said that he looked forward to meeting Abbas at the White House.Abbas has said that he, too, is willing to negotiate: “We extend our hand to our neighborsWe are ready for peace.” But then he added ” – peace based on justice”, essentially code for a number of conditions, such as the “right of return” to Israel of Palestinian refugees, that Israel finds unacceptable. Still, Israel is now in a position where it is difficult to claim that they do not have a negotiating partner, and Sharon’s spokesman said last week, “We expect to have a meeting very soon to discuss the issues the prime minister has reiterated time and again security and security coordination.”However, this spirit of cooperation received a considerable setback even before Abbas could officially take office. Following a terrorist attack by Palestinian militants (that killed six Israeli civilians at a Gaza Strip crossing), last week Israel announced that “there will be no meetings with Abbas until he makes a real effort to stop the terror.”In the light of this statement, it is interesting to recall UN Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast’s recent speech to the UN Security Council in which he said “There is a palpable sense of expectation of real, substantial and sustainable change in the region … the potential is there. But so is the danger that the fragile process might falter and fail. We must not allow that to happen.”But if the peace process is not to be postponed yet again, we must see signs of progress by Abbas in controlling the militants and reducing the number of terrorist incidents. Until that happens, Israel is unlikely to make major concessions; such as finally evacuating its citizens from the Gaza strip or halting the expansion of existing settlements in the occupied territories.So, how much can one realistically expect from the newly elected Palestinian leader? Prendergast has called on Abbas to establish “credible and reformed institutions which make a tangible impact” in promoting efforts to end the violence. But, if Abbas acts too forcefully in attempting to end the violence, he might well end up as a victim of it himself. He has to achieve a delicate balancing act, appearing to Israel and the United States as a moderate who renounces violence and is a true partner in the peace process, while maintaining in Palestinian eyes the image of a forceful leader who will fight for their rights and who will extract meaningful concessions from Israel in any negotiations.Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister of Israel and initiator of the Oslo peace process, has written in a recent Washington Post article: “Abbas is a pragmatic person, but not necessarily a moderate. He understood, before many of his colleagues, that the distress of the Palestinian people could be resolved through an independent state next to Israel, rather than in place of it. In my opinion, it will be possible to reach a detailed peace agreement with Abbas.”The key question, therefore, is how pragmatic Abbas will prove to be. How much is he in fact committed to a peace process leading to an independent Palestine with adequate security guarantees for Israel? And, if he is indeed committed, how successful will he be in convincing enough moderate Palestinians to join with him in controlling the terrorists? Remember that generations of Palestinian children have been brainwashed into total rejection of Israel, and Palestinian support for terrorism is strong.If Abbas cannot convince his fellow citizens to be equally pragmatic and face reality, then the “road map” process will continue to falter. Israel will continue to protect its citizens by building barriers and by lethal retaliation for terrorist attacks. And we may very well see the proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip postponed indefinitely and Jewish settlements continue to expand in the West Bank.Arafat bungled the opportunity he was given at Oslo. We must pray that Abbas does not follow in his footsteps. VTPeter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on UN issues are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in the Vail Trail.
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