Abu Mazen's Surprise

Mahmoud Abbas' willingness to flex his muscles in the face of Hamas and to strike when the need arises has boosted his reputation. But will he be able to maintain the quiet after the pullout?

"The Israelis didn't expect you would enter into a confrontation with Hamas," said United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she met briefly with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) two weeks ago. "You didn't expect it either," replied Abu Mazen, and Rice smiled: "You're right. We too were surprised." Abu Mazen's advisers grinned at one another in satisfaction. The attack on the members of the Hamas Qassam unit who were on their way back from a launch into Israel from the northern part of the Gaza Strip had achieved its aim.

Eight days before Rice's plane landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yusuf received an order to put his offices into operation against anyone who violates the cease-fire. The operational summation of the confrontation, which began with exchanges of fire with the people from the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades and ended with rocket hits on three Palestinian National Security armored vehicles, would not have aroused admiration - three youths killed and 45 wounded, among them 15 from the Palestinian Security services - but from Abu Mazen's perspective, the aim of the operation was to prove to the Americans that they are dealing with a serious, determined and courageous leader.

Washington's attitude toward Ramallah in recent weeks indicates the Americans got the message. A short time after Nasser Yusuf left the Defense Minister's Bureau in Tel Aviv, American envoys David Welch and William Ward received a telephone report from the Palestinian minister's aides that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had again refused a request to allow the entry of ammunition into the Gaza Strip. This is the first time since the brief honeymoon period between the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and former president Bill Clinton that the PA people have had the mobile phone numbers of senior American officials.

Abu Mazen knows the status of the disengagement plan in the United States rises in direct proportion to the depth of America's investment in Iraq. The end of the Israeli occupation in Gaza has become President George W. Bush's almost only hope (along with the disarming of Hezbollah) for a success in the Middle East. The Palestinian leader identified a rare opportunity to put the president in his debt and to depict Sharon as someone who is scornful of the American interests in the region. One doesn't need to be the head of the National Security Council at the White House to realize that the success will be measured not by a triumph by the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces over the Yesha Council, the self-appointed leadership of the Jewish settlers in the territories, but rather by the extent of the quiet that prevails in the Gaza Strip once the storm that is being stirred by the extremist Jewish right dies down.

This quiet depends on a victory by the pragmatic Palestinian camp over the Muslim fanatics. This will not happen if Hamas, which has already claimed for itself the credit for pushing Israel out of Gaza, also pushes out the PA. Abu Mazen's last visit to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convinced him that at best, Sharon doesn't care whether Hamas gains control of the Gaza Strip. However, Sharon does care that Bush be satisfied, and Bush cares that The New York Times won't report on his friend Ariel's contribution to the victory by Hamas, an organization that appears on the American terror list.

In Washington, too, they have begun to cast doubt on Sharon's readiness to help Abu Mazen in a fight against the common foe. However, Abu Mazen has repeatedly stated that he will not hesitate to use force against any element that tries to sabotage the disengagement plan, that is to say - the American interest. Yet in order to prevail over Hamas, it is not enough that the Americans force Sharon to let several truckloads of ammunition and the Bader Force unit of the Jordanian Army into the Gaza Strip. Before he makes use of these, if at all, against "the brothers" who uprooted the Israelis from Palestinian territory, the PA must harvest the fruits of the disengagement. The fruits are orderly governance, effective services and above all - employment. Even in this case Abu Mazen needs the importation of American pressure on Sharon, so that the latter will promise a close connection between the Gaza Strip and the outside world and an open passage to the West Bank. This mission has been delegated to special envoy James Wolfensohn.

The American stocks are a substitute for Abu Mazen's stocks in the local market. Bush's support is expected to fill a large internal vacuum that was in fact revealed at the end of the week during which Abu Mazen had sent out his police against Hamas. All of the senior PA people, apart from the loyal Nasser Yusuf and Jibril Rajoub, stood speechless. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) found safe refuge in casting the blame on Israel and the wily Mohammed Dahlan paid his dues in an interview or two to obscure local weeklies.

Abu Mazen took comfort in the fact that on Friday, a few hours after the incident, the masses that came out of the mosques did not demonstrate outside the PA offices. At his bureau they attribute this to the public's recognition that the firing of the Qassams gains nothing, now that the doubts have been dispelled that Israel is indeed leaving Gaza. In any case, Abu Mazen's willingness not only to flex his muscles in the face of Hamas but also to strike when the need arises has boosted his reputation.

Abu Mazen has postponed the elections for the leadership of the Fatah and for the legislative council in the hope that the PA government in Gaza together with American aid will establish his status. However, the postponement has a price. It has injected confusion into the political system and has depicted him as a weak leader who does not stick to agreements (with Hamas). The battle with Farouq Kadoumi, which is in essence the battle between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, has also been postponed and has had a negative effect on the diplomatic activity. For about a year now, ever since Nasser al-Kidwe's appointment as foreign minister, the PLO has not appointed an observer to the United Nations. In European capitals, too, there are complaints of a loose connection to the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah. To date, Abu Mazen has not appointed a spokesman and the PA head offices at the Muqata are not even connected to the Internet.

Abu Mazen's weakness stems from a combination of meager charisma, tribal and internecine wars and management failures. He derives his strength from the fact that he is perceived as a serious politician who is not just pursuing power and glory. Few have paid attention to the statement he made upon his election that this would be his only term. His first real test will occur in case Hamas violates the understanding with him concerning the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip (but not in the West Bank). From his perspective this would be an attempt to thwart not only his intention to turn the Gaza Strip into a model of orderly Palestinian rule, but also his disengagement from the no-partner image. This is the first stage in his plan for the day after Israel's withdrawal.

With respect to the disengagement from Gaza, and also with respect to the diplomatic moves concerning the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Abu Mazen's plan does not take into account Sharon as a partner. His working assumption is that in order to reach a permanent status agreement, Israel will have to experience a political turnaround. The dust that is being stirred up by the Oslo, Beilin-Abu Mazen and Geneva agreements has taught him that although this may not be enough, it is essential that a peace initiative bear the name of an American president in office (and preferably not in the twilight zone of a second term).

A few weeks ago Abu Mazen hosted a group of foreign correspondents at his bureau in Gaza. Toward the end of the meeting, the correspondent for The New York Times asked why his honor the president is not sending his troops in to disarm Hamas by force. Abu Mazen replied with a long lecture on the importance of unity in the ranks among peoples that are fighting for their independence. If everything goes according to his plan, the younger Bush will do for Sharon what the dispute with Clinton did to former prime minister (and now the finance minister) Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 elections, which, as Abu Mazen who holds a Ph.D in history surely remembers, paved the way for Ehud Barak the first Israeli prime minister who was ready to negotiate a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

It will be the height of historical irony if the Sharon plan for the disengagement from Gaza, which was aimed at putting the final status agreement into formaldehyde, becomes the Abu Mazen plan for getting it out of there.