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Palestinian exhaustion

Ariel Sharon has won the current round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His goal, an age-old objective, was for Palestinians to tire of their national struggle. To bring about the impoverishment and despair of the Palestinian people was never his purpose as such, but he viewed that result as a prerequisite to diverting the Palestinians' concentration from political issues to mundane matters of more immediate, quotidian concern. He appears to have achieved this ambition, an outcome Abu Mazen long predicted, which is why at the very outset of the armed intifada in 2000 he called for it to end. The uprising, he warned, would hurt Palestinians more than Israelis.

Palestinian exhaustion suits both men's purposes for now, though they differ sharply on what they intend to do with it. In Sharon's eyes, it provides a welcome means to depoliticize the Palestinian national movement; in Abu Mazen's, it is a necessary phase before the Palestinian nation can be repoliticized on new grounds.

The Palestinian leader holds little hope that a comprehensive settlement can be reached with Ariel Sharon. Too much separates them, not least the Israeli prime minister's preference for a long-term interim agreement in which hard issues, such as the final borders, status of Jerusalem, and fate of refugees, are indefinitely put off. With such differing notions, the immediate period is not the time for a bilateral agreement but for unilateral steps, with Israel withdrawing from Gaza and the northern West Bank and Palestinians putting their house in order. Negotiations leading to a permanent settlement remain his goal, but he does not think that the other side is ready yet. By rebuilding Palestinian institutions and the national movement itself, genuinely renouncing violence, rekindling international ties, and clearly articulating basic and unalterable Palestinian requirements, he believes the post-Sharon stage can be prepared for or even accelerated and that, in the intervening time, his people will reap the benefits of newfound and long-awaited tranquility.

This unquestionably is a gamble. Abu Mazen's support is as wide as it is fickle, a reflection of circumstance far more than of adherence to his person or program. The current state of shock among Palestinians is likely to subside, their fear to abate, and their exhaustion to end, at which point demands of a more political kind - for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, stop settlement construction, or end the occupation, for example - are likely to be voiced. As time passes, choices inevitably will have to be made, and enemies too. Some who half-heartedly support him now will break ranks, the prospect of an organized and effective opposition will arise, and calls for renewed violence will be heard. Abu Mazen hopes that, by then, he will have produced tangible returns in the form of stability, law and order, improved standards of living, and freedom of movement, accumulating political capital more quickly than he spends it and compensating for the loss of support from some constituents by the consolidation of support from others.

To succeed, Abu Mazen is banking heavily on support from the international community, principally the United States, to get beyond the immediate, material improvements in the Palestinians' situation. Ending violence and implementing institutional reforms are causes he believes in deeply, and that he would carry out for the good of the Palestinian people, no matter what. But he also sees an important side benefit, which is to put President Bush to the test and confront him with his words. More than once, Bush has said that reining in militant groups and democratizing Palestinian society would lead to a two-state solution. If the Palestinians live up to their commitments, Abu Mazen hopes, the U. S. will have to live up to its own, putting pressure on Israel to make the political concessions that he desperately will need.

Abu Mazen also is relying on changes within Israel, expecting that the quieter situation he will produce can lead to domestic pressure for a comprehensive deal, as opposed to popular contentment with the status quo. If that can be done quickly enough, Palestinian impatience can be managed, and a return to armed confrontation averted.

Abu Mazen enjoys a power that is at once nearly absolute and likely temporary. Unburdened by the need to cater to every constituency, his margin of maneuver is remarkably broad. But should the prevailing mood change, the U.S. fail to pressure Israel, or Israel fail to respond, the consensus that has swiftly formed around him will just as quickly evaporate.

He confronts two additional and paradoxical challenges. First, because his principal asset is international credit rather than domestic credibility, and because Palestinians are convinced that the U.S. can get from Israel what they themselves cannot, ultimately more will be expected of him than of Arafat. Second, insofar as his backing is chiefly the result of popular fatigue, the more he succeeds in improving the situation, the more he risks chipping away at his own support.

Among potential landmines, two lie immediately ahead. The first is Israel's disengagement from Gaza. This is not something he can oppose: Land is being turned over to Palestinians and, for the first time in the history of the conflict, settlements are to be evacuated. Gaza, free of Israel's presence, can be rebuilt and serve as a model for the rest of the occupied territories. But it also is something he cannot afford to warmly embrace: Many of his people fear that with all eyes fixed on Gaza, the withdrawal there will be accompanied by a greater thickening of settlement blocs inside the West Bank, more Israeli construction in the strategic area of Jerusalem and continued building of the separation fence, all part of a suspected broader plan to impose long-term, de facto borders that will divide the West Bank into cantons. Balancing between these two considerations, Abu Mazen is likely to praise the Gaza withdrawal as an achievement that is part of the road map, keeping any coordination with the Israelis to a minimum and keeping the bulk of international attention on the West Bank.

The second landmine is one he knows to be in the offing: an Israeli proposal to establish a Palestinian state with interim borders in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Eager for a political achievement, and obsessed with the imperative of institution-building, the United States and Europe are likely to press for his approval. Even some Arab countries, desperate for stability and for any sign of progress, can be expected to join the chorus. But what some see as an Israeli concession, Abu Mazen sees as a trap, an attempt to defuse the conflict, deprive it of its emotional power, reduce it to a simple and manageable border dispute, and defer a comprehensive settlement. He will strive to find a way neither to alienate important international backers nor break faith with his own deep-seated conviction that the proposal is a ruse - though how he can do both, at this point, even he does not know.

Power undoubtedly will affect him, as it affects all who sample it. Already, he has had to acquire, or feign, a taste for the oratory and the pressing of the flesh for which Arafat was famous. More broadly, his political survival will require the kind of tough balancing act he typically disdained and generally left to the Old Man: focusing on material improvement without neglecting political issues; maintaining Israeli and American confidence without losing that of Hamas or of Islamic Jihad; disciplining the armed militias without crushing them; looking out for the older generation without disappointing the new; maintaining Fatah's unity without being hamstrung by it; fulfilling US demands without appearing to comply with all of its wishes; ending the violence without seeming to submit to Israel; and, of course, moving away from Arafat's legacy without breaking with it.

Over time, the fundamental challenge will be whether he can reconcile the numerous expectations he now embodies and channel the somewhat lukewarm backing he enjoys from often competing groups into active support for himself and his policies. In this sense, the election results both overestimate and underestimate his strength: The more than 60 percent who voted for him did not all endorse his platform, and the more than 30 percent who did not vote for him do not make up a coherent, unified, and effective opposition.

There are, too, a series of unanswered questions. What will happen if Abu Mazen cannot deliver what the U.S. and Israel require, and what will happen if Bush and Sharon do not produce what Abu Mazen needs? What if Abu Mazen is unable to reach a deal with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah militants, or if he reaches a deal but it does not hold, or if it holds but Israel continues its military attacks? What if the fragile political consensus around him breaks down or if violent infighting breaks out?

During his ephemeral tenure as prime minister in 2003, at a time when he enjoyed the support of the United States, the help of the United Nations, of Europe, and of much of the Arab world, we asked why, in the midst of such a crowd, he felt so lonely. He operated then without popular support, with substantial opposition, and in the shadow of a founding and interloping father. A year a half later, the father is no more and every significant Palestinian constituency now looks to Abu Mazen and relies on him. He has become the object of countless, often incompatible, desires. A protector and a savior, a transitional figure and a generation's last best hope, the devil they know for some and the lesser of all evils for others. To Palestinians, Abu Mazen has become all of these, all at once. It has become crowded out there, and isolated he certainly is no longer. As he looks upon what lies ahead, he at times must wonder where all his constituents have come from, how long they will stand by him, and what he has done to deserve their abundant and often cumbersome company.

Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, and Hussein Agha is senior associate at St Antony's College, Oxford. This article is published with permission of the New York Review of Books. The full article appears in the February 10 edition.Rmalley555@aol.com