Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Yes, he's not relevant

By Yossi Alpher
Haaretz
08/Mar/2006

"The ball is in the Palestinian court. The one who has to do something with it is the future Hamas government. And Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), in this context, is not relevant." Thus stated Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last week. She's right.

Some people of good will in Israel, Palestine and the rest of the world want to make Abbas "relevant" in the hope that this will render an Israeli-Palestinian peace process possible. They remind us that Israel's agreements with the Palestinians are with the PLO, not the PA, and that Hamas is not (yet) a part of the PLO. They note that Abbas intends to strengthen the PLO vis-a-vis the PA. They point out that Hamas did not get a majority of Palestinian votes, merely a majority of Legislative Council mandates, hence Abbas still represents the Palestinian majority. They note that most Palestinians, including many Hamas voters, continue to support immediate negotiations toward a two-state solution.

"The Hamas victory cannot be allowed to obscure the reality," stated chief negotiator Saeb Erekat last week in the New York Times. "The Palestinian people want a negotiated peace, and in Mr. Abbas they have a Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman who shares their view, enjoys a mandate to act and has the ability to deliver."

But Abbas is not relevant to the current situation, and for now a peace process is not possible. Hamas is our "partner", for better or for worse.

Abbas is a good person with noble sentiments. He opposes violence and appears genuinely to want a two-state solution. He remains chairman of the PA and head of the PLO. So far, so good. But he is incapable of acting decisively, and unable to deliver on his commitments. He promised to disarm the militias - those of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad - and could not. He wanted to clean out the ranks of Fatah and the PLO from the old guard of corrupt politicos, and failed.

Nor are his own ideological commitments necessarily congenial to a successful peace process with Israel. He agreed with Hamas in March 2005 in Cairo that the right of return would be exercised for all refugees to their former lands - a sure formula for the elimination of Israel. Earlier, at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001, he was part of a PLO team whose positions on the Temple Mount and the right of return helped doom the talks. In short, even if he had a mandate to negotiate and the capacity to do so, peace talks with him would likely fail. In the unlikely event that they succeeded, Abbas would not be able to deliver, because he does not have a mandate. Hamas does.

That Hamas won less than 50 percent of the total Palestinian vote on January 25 is immaterial: all over Europe ruling parties are elected with less than 50 percent; some American presidents received less than 50 percent of the vote. In Israel, we're talking about Kadima leading the next government with less than a third of the vote. We argued energetically that prime ministers Rabin and Sharon had mandates to act even when their parties gained only a fraction of the vote and their coalitions were built on dubious foundations. Indeed, electoral systems like that which the Palestinians recently installed are designed to ensure stable single party rule, thereby ostensibly strengthening democracy. Israel can only look on with envy at the technical "success" of the Palestinian system - though obviously not at the political outcome, Hamas rule.

The majority of Palestinians may still favor a negotiated two-state solution, but they also continue to support suicide bombings. And if their sole reason for voting for Hamas was to kick out the corrupt Fatah establishment, they could have voted for squeaky-clean Palestinian secularists like Salam Fayad, who ended up with only two mandates. Hamas won its parliamentary majority fairly. Now it has to rule.

Abbas retains extensive powers as president and as head of the PLO. But he is also obliged, according to the Cairo agreement, to integrate Hamas into the PLO. If he doesn't, Hamas is liable to render the PLO "irrelevant." Moreover, because he is a democrat and an honorable man, Abbas will not now neutralize the Palestinian parliament but will honor the will of the Palestinian people. He and Hamas will find a formula that enables the latter to take office and the former to save face.

Palestinian moderates like Erekat are either in denial or genuinely don't understand that they have been replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, with all that entails for the future of Palestinian society and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israel undoubtedly shares the blame for Abbas' failure and Hamas' election triumph: we did not empower Abbas sufficiently and did not carry out some of our road map obligations. But to blame mainly us for Hamas' victory, as many Palestinians do, is simply another form of Palestinian denial. Nor does it alter the outcome we must now deal with.

If, miraculously, Hamas changes and accepts the Quartet's conditions, Israel might encounter a viable negotiating partner for discussing an interim deal. That thesis is worth waiting a few months to test, if only to ensure our credibility for what comes next. More likely, we shall have to continue acting unilaterally. In this context, what is "relevant" for Israel is the necessity of ensuring its future as a Jewish and democratic state - by dismantling outlying settlements and completing the security fence as close as possible to the green line, including in Jerusalem.

The writer is coeditor of bitterlemons.org, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak. Published by arrangement with bitterlemons (www.bitterlemons.org).

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