Henry Siegman, director of the Council’s U.S./Middle East Project, says Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is coming to Washington badly in need of a political boost from President Bush to balance the strong support Bush has given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“I think the most important thing that President Bush can do is to act far more forcefully than he has in the past in preventing Israeli actions that undermine Abu Mazen,” Siegman says. “Secondly, he has to reconfirm American insistence that Israel’s continued expansion of settlements and creation of new facts on the ground are egregious violations of Israel’s obligations under the road map [peace framework], for which it will be held accountable by the United States.”
Siegman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 23, 2005.
Abu Mazen, president of the Palestinian Authority [PA], is due in Washington this week to meet with President Bush. Could you to discuss the internal political problems he faces back home?
This meeting in Washington is very important to Abu Mazen for several reasons, not the least of which are the difficulties he’s having within the Palestinian Authority. The biggest problem he has is the challenge he faces in the coming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC]. That challenge is from Hamas. Hamas has made an historic decision to enter the Palestinian political process as a normal political party, and it enjoys significant popular support among major segments of the Palestinian public. It is seen, on the one hand, as a group that has fought for liberation from Israeli occupation, and on the other hand, as providing important social, educational, and economic services to the public the PA itself has not been able to fully provide, and as doing so without internal corruption. It is seen as honest, as opposed to the PA, and more specifically, as opposed to the most important political party within the PA, Fatah, which is seen as corrupt. There is now great concern that Hamas may emerge as the major opposition party to Fatah in the Palestinian legislature, as a consequence of the [parliamentary] elections scheduled for July.
If Hamas became a leading player in parliament, would that spell doom for peace efforts?
First, as well as they are likely to do, there is no chance, in my estimation, that they will become the majority party because there is a limit to the level of support they can receive in such an election. They did very well in recent local elections. But even there, the level of support was more or less around 30 [percent] to 35 percent, and Fatah remained the dominant political force. There are some highly exaggerated fears about how well Hamas will do, but they are not realistic. Hamas will not become the majority party; they will not run the government. And equally important, they really don’t want to run the government. They don’t want the responsibility of having to run a government, much less the responsibility of having to negotiate with Israel.
Having said that, there is no question that Hamas’ participation in the PLC and in the PA will narrow Abu Mazen’s maneuverability in the peace process. However, it will not prevent his participation in peace negotiations, for this is Abu Mazen’s condition for Hamas’ joining in the government. Nor will it fundamentally change the terms Abu Mazen has insisted on for such negotiations, namely that they begin with the pre-1967 lines and must include Jerusalem. These are not Hamas conditions, but PA conditions. Hamas has said they will allow the PA to engage Israel in peace negotiations that will create a Palestinian state east of the ’67 lines, namely in the West Bank and Gaza.
The legislative elections are due in July. I gather there is some movement to postpone them for two months?
There are very strong voices within Fatah urging Abu Mazen to postpone the elections because of fears of how well Hamas will do. However, Abu Mazen has said, in very categorical language, that he will not do this. He will hold the elections as scheduled because of his concern that such a delay would only be fodder for Hamas’ accusations that, for all its talk about democracy and reform, Fatah is a corrupt organization that manipulates elections to its benefit.
When we last talked in March, you were concerned that Israel’s plans to widen its settlements, particularly in the area around Jerusalem, would cause the eventual unhinging of Abu Mazen’s leadership. Do you still hold this view?
Absolutely. Abu Mazen faces a number of challenges today. One of them is the challenge from Hamas. The other challenge he faces is within his own house, as it were, and that is to clean up the PA, and more specifically the Fatah party he now heads. Fatah is not just one of several parties within the PA. Historically, Fatah has provided the center of political gravity for the Palestinian political community. If Fatah falls apart or is greatly weakened, then the entire Palestinian political system becomes undone.
Then, Abu Mazen has the problem of needing help from Israel and the United States to achieve credibility for his platform, namely, his insistence that Palestinians can make progress towards statehood only if they end the violence, if they do not resort to terrorism, and rely instead on political and diplomatic efforts. That proposition is being challenged by Hamas and other factions, but so far, it has produced no results for the Palestinians.
The Israeli government is continuing with the building of settlements, which means they are constantly shrinking the territorial basis of a new Palestinian state. Beyond that, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has not implemented most of the promises that he made in Sharm El-Sheik when he met in February with Abu Mazen. Most of the checkpoints and roadblocks are still in place. The economy has not improved. People and goods still cannot move across roadblocks. The promise of the release of 1,000 prisoners has not been implemented, and so on. All of this undermines the position of Abu Mazen, and he’s coming here to see the president in a kind of desperate plea to President Bush personally to use his influence to change the situation.
Prime Minister Sharon is in New York right now, and he spoke last night to a group of Jewish-American leaders. Opponents of the withdrawal from Gaza heckled him, and in his speech, he again said he would never negotiate on Jerusalem. The political pressure on Sharon does not bode well for a conciliatory attitude from him right now, does it?
It absolutely does not. The statement at [Baruch] College, the one you just referred to- that under no circumstances will he even negotiate on the subject of Jerusalem, much less agree to any role for a Palestinian state in any part of East Jerusalem- for all practical purposes forecloses the possibility of restarting the peace process. Abu Mazen cannot agree to attend a political negotiation where he is told up front that Jerusalem is off the table.
Abu Mazen’s office said that there was a meeting scheduled between him and Sharon on June 7. Do you know anything about this?
This question of when and whether there will be a meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen has been fodder for political game-playing on both sides. What I mean by that is that there’s great pressure on Sharon to meet with Abu Mazen- he has not met with him personally since Abu Mazen was elected as head of the PA. Sharon was concerned, however, that the absence of such a meeting would be used- as it most certainly would be- by Abu Mazen, when he meets with President Bush, as exhibit A for his case that the Israelis are not helping him.
As Abu Mazen’s visit to Washington approaches, the Israelis woke up to the problem and realized they better have a meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen before he meets with the president. However, Abu Mazen went on an extended trip overseas, according to some, in order to avoid a meeting with Sharon before he arrives in Washington. Sharon announced that he would meet with Abu Mazen shortly afterwards. In any event, all of this indicates how negative the atmospherics are at this time.
If the Israelis can pull off the Gaza withdrawal without a disaster, will the atmosphere change much in August?
I believe the Israelis can control the settlers. I think I told you the last time we spoke that this notion of a Jewish civil war is just deliberate hysteria. There is no possibility of a civil war within Israel. There is no part of the army that is going to defect, which it would have to do to qualify as a civil war, and fight the established military. That is just a hyperbole. No such thing will happen. But it can be more emotional and more traumatic than it needs to be, or should be, in a democratic country whose overwhelming majority favors the disengagement.
But if there is no violence on the Palestinian side, if Hamas will not make the disastrous mistake of arranging for Israelis to pull out under fire, and it is a relatively controlled situation on the Israeli side, then the Gaza pullout can serve to reassure both Israelis and Palestinians that there is a basis for further withdrawals.
The only problem is that Sharon has said on many occasions, and has said so again now during his visit to the United States as well, that he does not intend to follow up on Gaza for the time being. Even if the Gaza withdrawal goes well, he still expects Palestinians to meet certain tests- to dismantle the “terrorist infrastructure,” to implement reforms, to democratize Palestinian governance, and so on. And these tests will have to pass Israeli inspection. He says it will be quite a while before he’s even prepared to return to the road map, much less be willing to resume peace negotiations.
What should President Bush do at this time?
I think the most important thing President Bush can do is to act far more forcefully than he has in the past in preventing Israeli actions that undermine Abu Mazen. When Sharon came to the United States to meet with Bush at his Texas ranch last month, he announced ahead of time that the major message he intended to bring to the President in Texas was that Abu Mazen is a failure and that he cannot deal with him because he is not delivering. The president’s men warned Sharon not to do so, and Bush confirmed that he continues to see Abu Mazen as a credible partner for peace.
The most important thing the president can do now is to reconfirm that message. Secondly, he has to reconfirm American insistence that Israel’s continued expansion of settlements and its creation of new facts on the ground are egregious violations of Israel’s obligations under the road map [peace framework], for which it will be held accountable by the United States.
A final point: Sharon has told Israelis that the letter he received from President Bush in his meeting last year on April 14 constituted U.S. sanction for unilateral Israeli measures that preempt the permanent-status negotiations. It is a claim that greatly undermines Abu Mazen’s credibility. At this coming meeting, Bush needs to reaffirm that whatever compromises need to be made once a negotiation begins, none of these changes, whether on the issues of refugees or borders, can be done unilaterally. It all must be done by mutual agreement as part of a negotiating process. Both sides must make compromises. That is probably the single most important point Bush needs to make in his meeting with Abu Mazen if the Palestinian leader is to return from Washington with strengthened credibility.
Do you have any indication that he might do that?
There are serious discussions going on within the administration on this subject. There are some people, particularly at the State Department, who have been pushing for the president to give a letter to Abu Mazen, parallel to the one he gave Sharon, in which these points are made. But there is great resistance on the part of others within the administration to such a letter, who say it would weaken Sharon’s position before the Gaza withdrawal. So the likelihood is that there will not be a letter, but that the president will say something along these lines in his press conference.