by Yossi Beilin
Recent events have created a new situation in the Middle East, which is opening the door to a new opportunity. Yasser Arafat, as the unchallenged Palestinian leader, could have led a peace initiative — had he so wished. For his heirs, it will be much more difficult, but their commitment to peace is unwavering, as is their opposition to the continuation of an armed intifada. Had Senator John Kerry been elected U.S. president, in all likelihood he would have led a new political process, even sending a special envoy to the region to get the parties back to the negotiating table and assist them in their talks. But until he established his presidency precious time would have elapsed, and there is no doubt that his concerns regarding his re-election in 2008 would have caused him to be extra cautious.
Abbas and Qurei — Powerful Joint Axis
The situation that has developed is that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as leader and Ahmad Qurei (Abu ‘Ala) as prime minister have created a powerful joint axis, which is enjoying extensive Palestinian support in the pragmatic, secular camp. If the Sharon government assists them, wisely rather than heavy-handedly, if it conducts a dialogue with them regarding the withdrawal from Gaza and if it makes concessions in areas such as the release of security prisoners and the dismantling of a significant number of the Israeli army checkpoints on the outskirts of the Palestinian towns, then the two will get a strong boost and will be able to prove their ability to deliver the goods to the Palestinian public.
The main challenges facing them are to secure their rule in the West Bank and in Gaza, to consolidate the security forces, to guarantee law and order and to negotiate a cease-fire with the Islamic groups. Obviously, this won’t happen overnight, but it is indeed possible.
President George W. Bush doesn’t need to wait before assuming an active role in the Middle East. He has an excellent relationship with Mahmoud Abbas, and has made no attempt to conceal his positive personal attitude toward him. At this point in time, he is likely to demand that both parties fulfill their role in the Road Map, and he may well demand that Ariel Sharon conduct negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, with regard to the Gaza Strip as well as the permanent-status agreement.
Over the last 10 years, we have missed many opportunities. We have engaged in mutual blame-casting, and in most cases, attributed the reason for the stalemate and the deterioration in the situation to the other side. We were very close to an agreement in 2000, but we saw this opportunity slip away in the autumn of 2000 with the outbreak of the intifada. The Clinton–Arafat–Barak triangle could have reached a permanent-status agreement. The Bush–Sharon–Abu Mazen triangle will find this task much more difficult: Bush is far less determined than Clinton; Sharon does not believe there is a partner and does not believe in a permanent-status agreement; and Abu Mazen, who does believe in such an agreement, is not as strong as Arafat and will find it difficult to persuade the Palestinian street to agree to compromises.
nexpected Heroes of History?
History, however, is full of examples where fateful decisions were made in unexpected circumstances by unexpected people, often swept along by the dynamics that they themselves created, into decisions that they did not intend to make. It is possible that this triangle will make the historic decision that will bring about the end of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. At the present time, the task of the Israeli peace camp is to struggle to bring about the abandonment of unilateral measures and movement forward to intensive dialogue and cooperation. The Geneva Draft Accord of December 2003, in which Israelis and Palestinians proposed a model of a permanent-status agreement, caused Sharon — by his own admission — to initiate the withdrawal from Gaza, and now we, the creators and supporters of the initiative, must put pressure on Sharon so that he will not stop at the withdrawal from Gaza, but will go on to support moves on the path to a permanent-status agreement as per the Geneva Initiative.