Who's afraid of Abu Mazen?
After a long period when the Palestinian voice was barely heard in the world because of the siege of the Muqata, they will now have a prime minister to whom the doors of the world's leaders will open. But more than Abu Mazen needs the renewed dialogue with the greater world, he needs a renewal of talks with Israel.
To make the renewal of a peace process conditional on the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister recalls the maneuvers that preceded the October 1991 international peace conference in Madrid.
Then-premier Yitzhak Shamir made negotiations with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation contingent on the participation of all Arab neighbors, particularly Syria and Lebanon, in the conference. Shamir relied on intelligence assessments that predicted Hafez Assad would stay away from a process that did not guarantee it would end with the Golan being returned to Syria.
Assad confirmed the right-wing's cliche that you can't trust the Arabs, and agreed to come. Shamir's associates said the day Syria confirmed it would take part in the conference was one of the darkest in the prime minister's life. Then housing minister Ariel Sharon established the rejectionist front against the Madrid Conference - known as the constrainers - with Yitzhak Moda'i and David Levy.
In private conversations Sharon claimed that the gamble on Assad is what altered Israeli politics, and led to Labor winning the 1992 election. From there, it was a short hop, skip and jump to the painful blow delivered to the Greater Land of Israel doctrine - the Oslo accords.
The key question is what change was Sharon intending when he demanded reforms in the Palestinian government. Did he adopt the distinction of one of his friends and advisors, former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who told Yedioth Ahronoth in December 2001: "If we get rid of Arafat, there won't be anyone who will be able to step into his shoes and open doors to leaders around the world, and the Palestinian issue will disappear from the international agenda."
Did Sharon buy the revelation from the ex-Mossad chief that Abu Mazen won't be able to fill Arafat's shoes, "because of his Bahai background," - which would be like naming a Samaritan as president of Israel. The ex-Mossad chief's mistake lay in Abu Mazen's family name, Abbas, which is like Abbas Effendi, one of the founders of the Bahai faith. At Abu Mazen's request, Yedioth published a correction.
The answer to the riddle is most of all in Sharon's mind. After a long period when the Palestinian voice was barely heard in the world because of the siege of the Muqata, they will now have a prime minister to whom the doors of the world's leaders will open. But more than Abu Mazen needs the renewed dialogue with the greater world, he needs a renewal of talks with Israel.
Before he proves to the Palestinian public that he can change the Palestinian Authority's international stature, he has to prove to them that he can change the situation in their empty refrigerators. Before he distances the Hamas fanatics, he has to bring peace nearer. And there's only one person who can help him - Sharon.
Palestinian security forces who met last month in Washington with their Israeli counterparts, including former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, noted a number of necessary conditions for a transition from the violent track to the political one - neutralization of Arafat and his "revolving door" policy; renewal of security cooperation with the help of an international force; an easing of conditions for the Palestinian population and gradual IDF withdrawal from Area A; an understanding that attacks by rejectionists that succeed despite PA efforts to prevent them will not result in the IDF returning to the cities.
Sharon and his spokesmen continue conditioning any change in the PA "fighting terror." Nobody knows better than them that the IDF followed orders to castrate the Palestinian security services and to cut off any communication with them, except in the Jericho area.
Now the burden of proof is on Sharon, that the entire issue of reforms in the PA was not a gamble, only meant to "repair" what Shamir "ruined," and that he intends to offer something to the Palestinians.
And there's something else - in his coalition negotiations with Shinui, Sharon promised that moving Arafat aside would be accompanied by easing conditions in the territories. Now it's up to Yosef Lapid to prove that Arafat's presence was not an excuse for him to settle into the ministerial chair and to hell with the peace process.