"The use of weapons in the current intifada is damaging and must cease."
That was the important message that PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas delivered in his first statement on the subject following the death of Yasser Arafat. It was not the first time that Abbas made such a statement, but its importance this time is derived from his position, and the anticipation that it will be received with understanding and acceptance, by a majority of Palestinians - the same majority that in recent public opinion polls has expressed the view that the negotiations with Israel should be resumed.
Abu Mazen's tidings are more detailed than that. He intends, he said, to unify the command over the Palestinian Authority's security services, to reach an agreement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and, most importantly, to turn the opposition to the occupation into civic resistance. Considering the frequent attacks in Gaza, the mortars and the explosive tunnels, Abu Mazen's statements could be a first important attempt to draw a Palestinian boundary in principle between those who are in favor of negotiation as a way to reach an agreement and the violent organizations.
The Israeli response to such statements cannot be the usual cliche that spoke about Abu Mazen being judged by his actions. Against the background of the political developments in the region, the positive atmosphere that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is trying to foment and especially the preparations for the presidential elections in the PA, the new discourse is imbued with a special meaning, so that in and of itself it becomes a form of action.
Abu Mazen's remarks were not meant for Jerusalem and Washington's ears, but were spoken to Asharq al-Awsat, in Arabic - as Israel has often demanded, to the Arab and not only the Palestinian public. It was meant for every Arab and Palestinian movement and school of thought, inside and outside the territories, including Iran and Hezbollah, so that they know the intentions of the person who will be running the PA.
Therefore, Abu Mazen's statements are not the same as an answer given by a pupil on an exam. It is a test of the Palestinian leadership in the eyes of a public that expects the change in their leadership to lead to a change in their lives.
Against that background, Israel, too, no less than the Palestinian leadership, now faces a test in the eyes of its public. For Israel, at least based on Abu Mazen's remarks, must also adopt a new attitude, based on the existence of a serious Palestinian partner with whom to conduct negotiations.
Israel need not worry that its embrace might mark Abu Mazen in Palestinian eyes as a collaborator. The Palestinian public certainly would not regard its leader as a traitor if he won freedom for Palestinian prisoners directly from Israel, and not at the request of the Hezbollah or Egypt, or if Israel unfroze Palestinian funds and reduced the military operations to the absolute necessary minimum. Indeed, that is what the Palestinian public now expects.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz spoke this week about the possibility of reaching an interim agreement with the Palestinians. That is a statement that raises hopes for quick implementation, because on the Palestinian side there is someone who is ready to talk about it.