Corridors of Power / The Quartet Strings Arafat Along

Two days ago, the new foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, turned a cold shoulder to Abu Mazen after the latter's appointment as prime minister in the Palestinian Authority.

1. Israel stirs the pot

Two days ago, the new foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, turned a cold shoulder to Abu Mazen after the latter's appointment as prime minister in the Palestinian Authority. During a tour of the situation room at the Foreign Ministry, Shalom said that it looks like Arafat is going to hold onto all of the important areas of his authority, including matters of security and foreign policy, so Abu Mazen's appointment won't help to stop the terror. And just to underscore his attitude toward the change in the Palestinian leadership, Shalom announced that he had no intention of meeting with Abu Mazen. He's not the only one. NRP leader Effi Eitam, a member of the new security cabinet, remarked that Abu Mazen's appointment is a move cooked up by the Europeans together with the "Oslo gang," and that it will do nothing to alter the situation.

Eitam and Shalom apparently didn't know about Israel's involvement in the process that led to Abu Mazen's appointment this week. They failed to see how this development, while led by representatives of the Quartet, came to fruition with the blessing of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shaul Mofaz, the former and current defense ministers. They are also evidently unaware of the positive view that the top levels of the IDF take of this change in the Palestinian leadership; that they in fact hoped for such a development and even expect a shift in the state of the conflict to ensue from it. Officially, Israel is reluctant to appear as having stirred the pot in the Palestinian Authority, but it did have a hand in bringing about these events.

2. The Quartet issues an ultimatum

The process that led to Abu Mazen's appointment this week began in October 2001 in an unusually frank conversation that Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan had with Yasser Arafat. Abu Ala told the PA chairman that he had to choose between the continued use of terror and pursuing a path of diplomatic dialogue with Israel, insisting that more zigzagging between the two wouldn't work. He cited the example of the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, who opted for relations with the United States over acceptance of the terror of Al-Qaida and the Taliban regime, as a model for the Palestinians to adopt. Mohammed Dahlan had some harsh words for the Palestinian leader and angrily left the meeting. Abu Mazen did not keep quiet either.

Just a few days later, Arafat met with representatives of the Quartet. UN envoy Terje Larsen, European Union representative Miguel Moratinos, Russian representative Andrei Vdovin and the U.S. administration's representative Ron Schlicher told Arafat that he had to make a decision and take action; a continuation of the violent situation was not a tolerable alternative. The Quartet representatives (usually without the American representative) also met with top Israeli political and military figures and told them that Arafat must have an incentive to take firm action against terror, that Israel should declare its readiness to leave the Gaza Strip, to withdraw from 1 percent of the West Bank (within the framework of the "third redeployment") and announce its recognition of a Palestinian state. No one on the Israeli side was ready to comply with this proposal. About a month later, the U.S. made it plain to Arafat that he had one last chance to prove his leadership and get the terror under control; otherwise, the administration would cut off all contact with him.

In December 2001, following the assassination of minister Rehavam Ze'evi and a wave a terror attacks, Vdovin met with Arafat and complained to him about the continued violence. The Palestinian leader replied: "We declared an emergency situation, but Israel attacked us. I can't do anything under fire." The Russian representative asked Israel to restrain its responses to Palestinian terror in order to enable Arafat to take action against the organizations perpetrating the attacks. Jerusalem adamantly refused, arguing that any Israeli concession would be perceived by Arafat as weakness and thus encourage him to allow the terror attacks to continue; Arafat would only meet the demands made of him when subjected to major pressure. Israel's response was partially based on contacts it held with people in the Palestinian leadership, who affirmed that pressure is the only thing that motivates Arafat and that the Palestinian population was fed up with the closures and other measures imposed by the IDF in the wake of terror attacks.

When the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians reached the boiling point (with the incursion into six West Bank cities and the confining of Arafat to the Muqata), Terje Larsen conveyed an urgent message to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: The situation is on the verge of serious deterioration; the Quartet will demand that Arafat arrest Ze'evi's killers and bring about a cease-fire within two weeks. In return, Israel was asked to grant Arafat mobility beyond the Muqata compound and to promise to implement the Mitchell Plan once the terror is stopped.

The Quartet's proposal relied on discussions that had been held with Mohammed Dahlan, who asserted that he had the ability to rein in the terror organizations' activity. Larsen (who does a better Arafat imitation than Yatzpan or Tuvia Tzafir) had no illusions about the Palestinian leader: He said he knew the man was an irrational liar who acts according to instinct and improvises as he goes along without having any strategic plan. This is precisely why he felt that the Quartet could exert its influence on Arafat.

Larsen told the Israelis that they ought to forget the idea of getting rid of Arafat because he would only leave behind a vacuum that could not be filled by another Palestinian figure who would have sufficient authority to be effective. The UN envoy also refuted the Israeli premise that Arafat could be steered into a position where he would have only figurehead status.

"It would be even worse without him," contended Larsen. "He understands now that the two peoples have to live alongside each other. He accepts the principle of partition and he is even ready to forgo the right of return, though he is incapable of declaring this. He'd be ready to die as a martyr and a fighter, and not to be humiliated." Larsen was drawing on what he'd heard from Arafat himself as well as from the people around him. At the time, Larsen was convinced that if Sharon offered Arafat an attractive political deal, the PA leader would completely halt the terror campaign.

3. The U.S. watches from the sidelines

In early 2002, after the capture of the arms ship Karine A, which convinced the U.S. administration of Arafat's involvement in the importation of weapons of terror into the territories, Miguel Moratinos had a blunt conversation with Arafat in which he implored him to present a reliable report about the circumstances behind the incriminating cargo that was found on the ship. The EU representative warned his interlocutor that if he did not mend his ways, no positive developments could occur for the Palestinian people. He told Arafat that he had to arrest Ze'evi's killers and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

Arafat responded by saying that he had already arrested Fuad Shubeiki (the businessman whose name was connected with the funding of the arms ship) and even invited Moratinos to pay Shubeiki a visit in jail so he could see for himself. The EU representative urged Israel to show the Palestinians a political horizon. Then Moratinos joined Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, in Washington for talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The Europeans sought to coordinate positions with the American administration, but were disappointed: The Americans explained that they were not about to agree to Arafat's preconditions.

In mid-2002, Larsen started asking Arafat to institute reforms in the structure of the PA and in its operations. For one thing, he asked him to implement procedures that would ensure the transparency of the PA's financial operations. Arafat responded in astonishment: "And how can I do that? I'm an Arab leader, after all." At the same time, some of the other Palestinian figures he talked to gave Larsen an interesting explanation for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit: Ehud Barak and President Clinton (via Dennis Ross) held contacts with the young generation of the Palestinian leadership (Mohammed Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid), bypassing the old guard. This approach angered the founding generation (Abu Mazen) and caused it to torpedo the summit.

The decision to focus on the issue of the right of return and UN Resolution 194 (which deals with the settling of the refugee problem) was calculated to place an insurmountable hurdle before Arafat when it came time to try to forge an accord with Barak. Two years later, Larsen concluded that both Arafat and his generation, and the younger leaders, wish to find a way out of the predicament created as a result of the intifada and Israel's aggressive response to it. Larsen learned that Arafat likens his present gloomy situation to that of 1993, which led him to accept the conditions of the Oslo agreement. Still, Larsen does not believe that Arafat will actively confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but will continue maneuvering to maintain his grip on the consensus of the Palestinian street.

4. Larsen makes a threat

In July 2002, the Quartet representatives felt that their efforts were beginning to bear fruit, and that Arafat had truly grasped the demand for reform. They turned to Israel and asked it to do its part: to ease the economic and military pressure on the Palestinians, not to go overboard its demands on Arafat so as to preserve his dignity, and to understand that it was better to implement a combined economic-military-diplomatic approach - in the appropriate doses - in order to bring about a cessation of the violence and open the door to political dialogue.

The decisive meetings took place in December 2002. Larsen met with Arafat, Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Mohammed Dahlan. He addressed Arafat in a sterner tone than he'd ever used before and told him: "This is the last time that I'm coming to you. You've lost all your friends in the world. The day is not far off when IDF soldiers will appear at the door to your office and take you from here or kill you. This can be prevented if you act quickly against terror."

Larsen told the Israelis with whom he met subsequently that he did not believe that his words would have an effect on Arafat. He said that while the people around the Palestinian leader were fed up with him, they wouldn't come out against him because they couldn't be sure of the outcome of such a confrontation. In those days, Larsen felt that Dahlan had the power to control the activities of the terrorist organizations and that it wasn't the right time to soften the approach to Arafat.

He claimed that an alternative Palestinian leadership, which included Abu Mazen, was prepared to have a dialogue with Israel, but that it was afraid of leaks. Larsen proposed that a small Israeli team maintain a secret channel of talks with a Palestinian team (composed of Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Dahlan), either all together or in separate meetings. He recommended that the encounters take place abroad. Larsen also repeated his request that Israel announce its willingness to evacuate the settlements from the Gaza Strip and follow through with a mostly symbolic dismantling of one or two settlements in the West Bank in anticipation of negotiations on the temporary borders of the Palestinian state (in accordance with the Bush outline).

Two months later, Larsen met with Dahlan and heard from him that the talks in Egypt with Hamas, aimed at reaching an agreement to halt the terror attacks, were destined to fail and that he, Dahlan, was ready to take on Hamas in Gaza. Dahlan did in fact carry out a number of arrests of Hamas members who had fired Kassam rockets at Israeli targets. Then Hamas leaders met with him to seek a truce. Dahlan agreed on condition that Hamas stop firing rockets at Israeli locations.

Dahlan also met with Arafat in Ramallah and spent four days trying to persuade him to change his ways. He warned Arafat that time was running out, that he had to act before the outbreak of the war in Iraq and that if he did not do so, he would disappear from the stage and the entire PA would fall apart. After having his say, Dahlan got up and left.

Two hours later, his phone rang. Arafat told him: "You didn't wait to hear my answer." Dahlan replied: "I know what it is." He told Larsen that Arafat was not happy with the situation but was incapable of taking action to halt the terror. He urged the UN envoy to accelerate his efforts to bring about reform in the PA and proposed that elections be held within months to replace all of the veteran leadership, apart from Abu Mazen and Abu Ala. Dahlan also asked Larsen to use his influence to get the donor countries to increase their aid to the PA once it had a new leadership.

Larsen went to Ramallah, to another meeting with Arafat. This time he told him that he had only a few days left to act. If he did not appoint a new prime minister before the American assault on Iraq, it would be the end of his leadership, of Fatah and the PA. He advised Arafat to appoint Salem Fayyad as prime minister and to surround himself with a council that included Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Mohammed Dahlan. Larsen thought that Arafat was ripe to accept this dictate and that the alternative leadership was ready to take on its intended role.

To ensure the process's success, Larsen, Moratinos and Vdovin had a three-hour session with Arafat in which they insisted that he immediately appoint a prime minister. He told them: "I've already agreed to that." They replied: "It's not enough that you agreed. You have to act immediately." They handed him a brief document containing their requirements: that changes be instituted in the PA, and that Arafat appoint a prime minister and a four-member operating council. Arafat did not commit himself to meeting these conditions.

5. The circle closes

A few weeks ago, at the end of February, Larsen saw that his efforts had paid off: The Palestinians announced that they were going to convene their Legislative Council and the PLO's Central Council to approve the structural changes in the PA, including the appointment of a prime minister. The American administration expressed support for the move. Israel was asked to allow the two bodies to meet and it consented, with one reservation: that members of either council who were tainted by terror not be permitted to participate.

Larsen, Vdovin, Moratinos and the U.S. ambassador in London met with Tony Blair and obtained his support for the move. Blair called President Bush and asked that the American administration make a gesture that would demonstrate its commitment to pursuing implementation of the Road Map. Bush said that he would deal with the Road Map only after the formation of the new government in Israel. Larsen came back to Israel and met with Arafat. He told him that the Quartet saw only two suitable candidates for prime minister: Abu Mazen and Salem Fayyad. Larsen himself preferred Fayyad and also guessed that he would be Arafat's choice, since Abu Mazen was more of a threat to his standing. He believed that Fayyad and Abu Mazen would work together and that they would make a winning team.

Fayyad predicted that Arafat would accept the change in his status ("He'll be like the Queen of England"). Larsen also got German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw to call Arafat and make clear to him that Europe felt these were the only two viable candidates for prime minister. This week, the circle was closed.