Background/ Betting on Abu Mazen - to Lose

By Bradley Burston, Haaretz Correpondent

The "road map" has been unfurled at last, its destination a independent
Palestine by 2005. So why are so many Israeli government hawks walking
around with smiles on their faces?

The war in Iraq may be one big reason, the newfound sense among rightists
that the Middle East can be made over by force of will, force of arms, and
force of example.

Another possibility is rooted in the gambling instincts of George Bush and
Ariel Sharon, who may well be betting heavily on new Palestinian Prime
Minister Abu Mazen - to lose.

The road map, a now-rare diplomatic collaboration of the United States,
Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, was formally presented
Wednesday to the eleventh prime minister of Israel and the first prime
minister of the Palestinian Authority.

On the face of it, rightists in Israeli officialdom should be anxious. The
Bush administration, with a robust push from Britain's Tony Blair, has
pledged to vigorously pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace through cooperation
and mutual compromise.

The plan speaks of a phased approach, leading with political and
procedural reform of the Palestinian Authority and PA efforts to quell
attacks on Israelis, to be matched by broad Israeli military withdrawals
from areas re-occupied during the Intifada, and the institution of a
freeze on new settlement activity - this last a concept particularly
odious to hardline Israeli officials.

So why are these people smiling? The mood elevation stems from clear
channels of communication with Washington, and the signals they are
receiving from the White House and Capitol Hill, argues Haaretz
commentator Akiva Eldar:

"The message that they are getting now, is that the Rumsfeld-Richard Perle
school of thought is now in charge, people who were against the Oslo peace
process, people who don't trust the Palestinians, people who feel that
after what they did in Iraq, the Palestinians must now go after and crack
down hard on the Islamists, the radicals, the terrorists - something the
Palestinians may be unable to accomplish," Eldar says, adding of the
neoconservative-oriented U.S. officials, "These are people who are against
any appeasement."

In their interpretation of the road map, Sharon need not make a single
move until the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated that it is putting
up a significant battle against the militants in its midst. Moreover,
"they know that Sharon has raised the required threshhold to so high a
level that it is unrealistic to believe any Palestinian could reach it."

Israel is soon to hand Abu Mazen's security authorities its lists of
wanted militants, along with a demand that the fugitives be put behind
bars for lengthy terms - a sharp contrast from Arafat's rule, during which
the PA Chairman's men leaked the lists to give fugitives time to go
underground rather than be seized. Those wanted men who actually were
taken into custody were, in many cases, released before long - a system
Israel was swift to dub the revolving door.

But hawks can allow themselves to breath easy in the face of possible
future demands for concessions, Eldar maintains.

"They have every reason to expect that the vicious circle of terrorism,
retaliation, and targeted killings will simply go on," he says, adding
that newly appointed senior PA security official Muhammad Dahlan lacks the
power to break the cycle even in his native Gaza, where the PA police
apparatus was not wholly pulverized by Israel, as it was in the West Bank.

As if to prove their point, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the fierce,
wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of Hamas, lost no time Wednesday in
dismissing the road map and vowing no let-up in attacks by the militant
Islamic group, which has sworn to blast the Jewish state entirely off the
map of the Middle East.

"The road map aims to assure security for Israel at the expense of the
security of our people," Yassin said in Gaza City. "It is a plan to
liquidate the Palestinian cause. It is rejected by us."

There is also ample reason to believe that the process of instituting PA
reforms - sabotaged by Arafat at every turn - has itself already done
significant damage to Abu Mazen's standing and his ability to seek an end
to terror attacks.

True to form, Arafat clearly relished the repercussions of opposing Abu
Mazen as long as possible in the near-operatic wrangling over a new
cabinet. Arafat's refusal brought him rafts of telephone calls from world
figures, and direct arm-twisting from a personal envoy of Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak.

Like a recalcitrant child for whom scolding and cajoling is better than no
attention at all, Arafat had re-established his own relevancy, if only for
a night, and at Abu Mazen's expense. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the
international intervention sapped the new prime minister's credibility as
an independent leader.

The American administration, ever mindful of a do-or-die election next
year, wants no part of being embarrassed by Abu Mazen's PA, as previous
administrations were embarassed by Arafat's, Eldar says. Washington also
has little trust that Abu Mazen has the strength to deliver on the issues
that count, just as the White House has scant interest in demanding that
Israel make concessions like wholesale troop pullbacks, only to be hit by
fresh waves of suicide bombings.

In sum, Sharon is betting on Abu Mazen to fail.

What's in it for Sharon? Eldar believes that the Israeli leader quietly
but genuinely believes what Israeli ultra-hawks like Likud cabinet
minister Uzi Landau and American neocons like Richard Perle are pleased to
say out loud: that everything connected with Oslo must go - up to and
including the whole of the Palestinian Authority.

Because the road map is at heart a return to many of the aspects of Oslo
and its offshoot the Peres-Abu Ala plan, even with a similar cast of
characters, the hawks reject its very basis. As in U.S. neocon
recommendations to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, "They
reject the principle of land for peace. They believe that Israeli-
Palestinian military cooperation doesn't work. They believe in peace by
force, by regime change. They believe that the victory in Iraq proved that
they were right, that the way to deal with terrorism is simply by force."

At the end of the day, "If 'Bush comes to shove' and the administration
must decide whether to crack down on Sharon or on Abu Mazen, it's very
clear what they are going to do."

What, then, is Sharon's solution to the conflict? A senior security
official recently told Eldar of a conversation with Sharon, in which the
prime minister said Israel must stick to its guns for the next 30 years,
at which time alternative technologies will reduce the need for oil, thus
sapping Arab influence on Europe and the world.

Many in the Bush administration have a similar position, believing that if
you have enough power and will, there is no need to concede. Eldar says
that the Israeli stand-pat faction has been much encouraged by the growing
list of U.S. senators and members of Congress that support the Sharon
formula, a whole-hearted acceptance of the vaguely worded "Bush vision"
enunciated in a June speech, alongside grimly qualified reservations over
the road map.

"All Sharon has to do, at this point, is to hold on until the beginning of
the election year," Eldar concludes.

For his part, Bush, ever mindful of the Jewish vote, can also discreetly
bet on Abu Mazen to lose. If the scenario plays out as neocons hope, he
can appear to have a peace process going, but will have no need to
pressure Israel into concessions.

"Then Bush can turn around and tell the Europeans, the Egyptians and the
Saudis, 'I did my job. I've accepted the road map, I've turned my back on
the Israeli demands for revisions to the plan, now it's up to you to
deliver your Palestinian friends.'"

In any case, Eldar says, "someone will always provide him with a terrorist
attack, so he can say, 'What do you expect me to do now?'"