The history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the past year is divided into waiting periods. First was the nine months of waiting for the Iraq war. Then came the six weeks of patience until the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). This week the third count began - until Abu Mazen and his new cabinet "fight terror," or in the American version, "until they establish themselves in power." All the signs indicate this waiting period will be long, perhaps indefinite.
The terrorist attack on the Tel Aviv promenade, a few hours after the new Palestinian prime minister was sworn in, and the IDF's assassination in Khan Yunis on Tuesday, demonstrated that the political experiment launched in Ramallah is not set in a laboratory but in violent reality that threatens to erupt. The terror organizations will want to show that they are not giving up, and Israel will increase its pressure to force the Palestinian government to act against them. A few more attacks like that, and the right-wing ministers will probably call to deport Abu Mazen, or at least force his dismissal.
As the Abu Mazen confidence vote drew closer, the tone changed in Jerusalem. At first Israel presented his election as a large celebration, as Israel's fruit of victory in the intifada. Now the prime minister, foreign minister and defense establishment are warning of another trick of those cunning Palestinians. The Israelis' position, supported by an intelligence analysis of Abu Mazen's statements in various conferences, is that the new prime minister will try to push Israel to concessions by means of hudna, an agreed cessation of attacks among the Palestinian organizations, behind which they will amass power and arms for the next round in the confrontation.
Jerusalem sources warn that the international community is deaf to such nuances and, as soon as a false calm prevails, will demand from Israel withdrawals and settlement freezes. Israel is demanding a Palestinian "Altalena," no less than a confrontational showdown between Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan on the one hand and Hamas, Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades on the other.
The old Israeli demands are now joined by the "Arafat standard," which checks to what extent Arafat still wields influence and power compared to his "heirs." The chief of staff yesterday gave Abu Mazen a grade of "one third," i.e. failing. Naturally in these circumstances, Israel is withholding the goodwill gestures and humanitarian relief steps, and spreading reports about evacuating outposts, probably to throw a bone to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. The road map is approaching and the negotiations on its implementation will be conducted between Sharon and Abu Mazen, with each side trying to invest minimum effort to score maximum points with the American referee.
The political paradox in the Sharon era is the widening gap between the impressive progress in diplomatic declarations and the gloomy reality. Shimon Peres, eager to return to his cabinet seat (he has recently met twice with Sharon), distributed a document in his party describing Bush's speech and the road map, with their call for two states, ending the occupation and a permanent settlement in three years, as the "death certificate" of the right wing's ideology. According to Peres, it is possible that Sharon, of all people, will be the one to face the historic decisions about Jerusalem and the permanent borders. Therefore he suggests putting the road map to a cabinet vote, which will lead to the ejection of the right and the entrance of Labor.
But, at this stage, there is no indication that Sharon is rushing toward a discussion about the partition of Jerusalem. Even the professional optimists of the American State Department, who now see a chance for progress, do not expect Sharon to reach the permanent settlement. At most, if the difficult conditions of the first stage are fulfilled, a small Palestinian state will be established within temporary borders. Sharon and his supporters want the Palestinians to give up the "right of return" in advance, and then have their state conduct a prolonged border dispute with Israel, like Syria, for many years of sterile negotiations, held in the shadow of Israel's military supremacy. The world will be pleased to have the annoying dispute finally pushed off the agenda, and the real problems of solving it will be left to Sharon's heirs.
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