The Palestinians' Good Ol' Boy

There are experts, including Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz during his term as defense minister, who thought that life would be better if we assassinated Yasser Arafat. Shabtai Shavit, who was head of the Mossad, said at the end of 2001 that if we got rid of Arafat, "There would not be anyone able to step into his shoes as someone who opens the doors to world leaders; and the Palestinian issue would drop off the international agenda." Shavit, who had prime minister Ariel Sharon's ear, "discovered" that Mahmoud Abbas is a member of the Baha'i "community" (rather than "religion") -- and therefore his chances of becoming Arafat's successor were like the chances of a Samaritan becoming president of the State of Israel.

It is a universally-acknowledged fact that after Arafat passed away, Abbas, a devout Muslim, easily replaced him at the Muqata. Who knows? Maybe one day we will have a Samaritan president. As is illustrated by United States President George W. Bush's speech and the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as the Quartet's envoy, Arafat did not take the Palestinian issue with him to the grave. Moreover, as to the ability to "open doors" to gain entry to world leaders, Palestinian Prime and Finance Minister Salam Fayad has now come along with a heavy bunch of keys. At the end of his days, Arafat (with Sharon's help) locked the White House door to the Palestinians. Abbas managed to get a foot in the door while Fayad has succeeded in opening wide the doors of Washington.

Fayad is held in high regard in Washington and is subject to considerable coddling. While his accent reveals his Middle Eastern origins, he speaks rich and fluent English and dresses like an average American official. Unlike Abbas, who received his bachelor's degree in isolated Syria and both his master's degree and doctorate in Soviet Russia, Fayad began his studies in liberal Beirut and continued from there to the United States. These differences in political cultures afford the new prime minister a considerable advantage over the more veteran chairman.

During his years at the University of Texas, Fayad picked up the language of America's South, the lingo spoken in President Bush's immediate surroundings. Fayad knows the names of the local football teams and he knows how to give the neo-conservatives the feeling that they are talking to a good ol' boy. His service at World Bank headquarters in Washington during the presidency of Bush senior was a preparatory course in southern-Republican psychology.

In an interview to Haaretz last Sunday, the day before Bush's speech (about whose main points the Palestinian prime minister had been informed of in advance), Fayad proved to the Americans that he is someone they can trust. Every attempt to extract from him a word of criticism of the American helplessness, or even the slightest reservation, was met with a forgiving smile that seemed to say "really now, do you think I'm a fool and a sucker?"

The first part of the answer to the question of whether Fayad believes that Israel and the Palestinians can make any progress on their own was encouraging. "Definitely not," said the Palestinian prime minister. "There are vast amounts of goodwill in the international community and only a complete idiot would not take advantage of that."

You agree that the sides cannot reach an agreement by themselves. Aren't you sorry that there isn't some international element that will sit them down at the negotiating table?

"The Arab initiative has to serve as a basis for progress. I have no doubt that when the international community sees that we are moving ahead in the right direction, it won't leave us by ourselves and will enlist to help."

One of the people closest to Fayad, Jamal Zakut, the Palestinian Authority's former deputy minister of civil affairs, is prepared to volunteer a few more words about the role the PA intends the United States and the Quartet to play. "To stabilize the situation on the ground -- a necessary condition for ending the occupation. Economic aid from the international community isn't enough," says Zakut, who comes from the Gaza Strip and was among those who prepared the Geneva Accords. "Without the presence of United Nations forces in the territories it will be very difficult to bring life back onto a normal track, to keep the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem as a single unit and to stop the confiscation of lands for purposes of expanding Jewish settlements and building the fence. It is necessary to suit the format of the international presence to each of these three matters."

The Saudis, the Egyptians and the Jordanians consider the transitional Palestinian government as an opportunity to stop the Islamic lava current that began with the victory of Sunni Hamas in the elections of January 2006 and continued in the major achievement by Shi'ite Hezbollah during last summer's war. But it is a very long road from here to sending forces to the territories.

In the meantime, they are making do with convening a "mini-summit" conference at Sharm el-Sheikh at the end of the month, in which the leaders of the new Palestinian Authority in Ramallah will participate to coordinate policy in the wake of Bush's speech. The impression that has been formed in the Arab world, and in the rest of the world, is that Fayad, a person who gets things done but lacks a political base, is Bush's baby and his candidate to succeed Abbas ahead of the coming presidential elections. Be that as it may, this relationship presages the end of the seven "good" years for Israel, years during which the Palestinians and their problems have been lingering in the background.

The relations between Fatah and Hamas are reminiscent of those of a couple that has decided to split after years of quarrels and each one of them is now trying to lure the grown children to live with him or her. Three variables will affect the Palestinians' choice between the Fatah model in the West Bank and the Hamas model in the Gaza Strip, in this order: personal security, financial security and a political horizon. With respect to security, the Gaza Strip is leaving the West Bank behind. Ever since Hamas' takeover of the Strip and the expulsion of Muhammad Dahlan's loyalists, the sounds of shooting can no longer be heard and the sight of armed men in the streets has become rare. Although the Gaza Strip is indeed under siege, unlike their brethren in the West Bank, the inhabitants of Gaza have been exempt from the punishments of Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the Jewish settlers ever since Israel left the territory two years ago.

With regard to economics, the competition between the two areas is close: On the one hand, Israeli closures and roadblocks are strangling economic life in the West Bank. On the other hand, the closed Israeli and Egyptian crossing points (with the encouragement of the PA-Ramallah) are strangling economic life in the Gaza Strip. International aid organizations are managing to supply the Strip with basic products and medications. Tony Blair, who will arrive in the region next week, will undoubtedly see to it that during his term as envoy, children do not starve and elderly people do not die. However, the Israeli and American siege policy is causing a shortage of raw materials that has already led to three out of every four factories and workshops to close down and has resulted in the nearly total paralysis of the construction industry. Those belonging to the middle and upper classes are gradually disappearing and, with them, so are thousands of jobs.

The political variable is not only or even mainly in the hands of the local players. The Gaza government is claiming that the invader only understands the language of force, nothing else. For its part, the West Bank government and the Arab League are selling the children illusions of "a diplomatic horizon." And, indeed, this week, too, Abbas emerged from a meeting with Olmert without so much as a hint of any diplomatic news. On the one hand, Olmert is refusing to help Abbas show the Palestinians that Fatah's attitude toward Israel promises a better future than the rules enforced by the rivals from Hamas. On the other hand, Olmert is not providing Abbas with ammunition that will help him prove his thesis. And still, the prime minister expects Abbas to overcome Hamas empty-handed, to buy his public's affection and not to even think about another unity government.

Fayad makes no secret of the West Bank government's intention to take back control of the territories, including Gaza, through the ballot box. He is taking upon his government the responsibility for imposing law and order, proper administration and moral rehabilitation in the West Bank. He expects Olmert to replace the bear hug with a fine embrace, by, for example, dismantling all the roadblocks within the West Bank. And if that is too difficult, then at least the start of negotiations on a permanent status agreement. And if even this request is too much, Olmert could at least evacuate two or three outposts. Incidentally, Jerusalem's top governmental echelon are examining an improved plan for a convergence into temporary borders, in line with the route of the separation fence. This time the proposal is to coordinate such a move with Palestinian agreement and to accompany it with several guarantees for a timetable for negotiations on permanent borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.

If Israel is too weak to do any of this, perhaps the conference Bush has promised for the fall will give it a wake-up call. And if this also does not help, it will be the turn of the mediators, who have already begun to play around with compromise formulations -- for the sake of domestic tranquillity, of course -- at the expense of the chance of peace in Israel.