Posted on Fri, Apr. 18, 2003


A step toward peace: Ratify Abbas' cabinet

If President Bush follows through on his pledge to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom will herald a renewed White House focus on peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That effort will be central to the Bush administration's Middle East foreign policy; the White House knows that, even if it succeeds in Baghdad, America will never win the good graces of the Arab world without a peace in Jerusalem.

To that end, Bush should be encouraged by two recent developments:

•  Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ally and champion of settlement building, said that he may uproot his West Bank base ``faster than people think.''

•  Last week Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas announced his proposed cabinet, which favored reform-minded Palestinians to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's corrupt loyalists. But Arafat rejected the list out of hand, shooting himself in the foot. Again.

The beleaguered PA chairman obviously doesn't know a good thing when he sees it. That much has been clear since three years ago, when he rejected then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's generous peace plan without so much as a counteroffer. His indefensible decision to nix the proposed cabinet was a good reminder of the depth of his power-hungry intransigence. But it also showed that with international pressure by the Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- Arafat's days may be numbered.

The sordid story started with pressure from the Quartet for reform within the PA. The group said that it would challenge Israel with its ''road map'' for peace when the PA developed a real infrastructure for governance, starting with the installation of a prime minister and a cabinet of his choosing. Arafat finally acceded, hoping that the prime minister would remain subservient to his interests. After a heated debate last month, the parliament created the post, and Arafat's longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas -- an instigator of the first intifada in 1987 but a critic of the second -- accepted it, believing that it would endow him with enough power to enact real change.

Abbas' cabinet had to show security credentials to Israel and reclaim street credibility from terrorist groups such as Hamas. Abbas handled the dilemma beautifully, summoning an all-star lineup. He proposed to oust many of Arafat's cronies or relegate them to small-time ministries. Abbas chose sharp-tongued reformers such as Gaza Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan for the high-profile positions and kept the most important portfolio of interior minister -- responsible for the security forces that hunt and arrest terrorists -- for himself. The only thing standing between Abbas and his cabinet was the approval of the parliament's largest political party, Fatah.


But Arafat, who controls Fatah, threw a wrench into the proceedings with objections about how his allies had been treated.

''He's outmaneuvering his rivals,'' said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ''Everyone's riveted on Iraq, and he's using that opportunity to sabotage from within the most hopeful moment of reform.'' Arafat isn't interested in Israeli concessions that undermine his authoritarian control of the Palestinian people. He is concerned mostly with the growing opinion that he is irrelevant to the peace process, a perception that his defeatism -- and his contempt for reform's champions such as Abbas -- only confirmed.

Fortunately, other parties are more willing to compromise. Bowing to mounting U.S. pressure, Sharon has shown unusual willingness to compromise on settlements. He says that he anticipates ''a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. . . . I do not think we have to rule over another people and run their lives.'' Sharon and Abbas, if they can throw off the spectre of Arafat and let themselves be guided by the Quartet, may return to the negotiating table in earnest.

Arafat's veto power over Abbas cabinet is almost as devastating a weapon as the suicide bombers who have traditionally undermined peace talks. But the process of circumventing him has already begun, and on Sunday, Abbas will present his reshuffled group to the Palestinian parliament for approval. Before then, the Quartet should pressure Fatah members to choose Abbas, the reformer, over Arafat, the defeatist.

It's a choice that Bush could ease by extracting a promise from Sharon to close a key settlement such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron -- where the Palestinian population of 130,000 outnumbers a stubborn enclave of 400 Jews -- when Fatah ratifies the cabinet. That would expose Arafat's unconscionable self-promotion, cut him out of the process and augment the popular mandate for reform.

Adam B. Kushner edits the Columbia Political Review.