The Palestinians' last best hope for peace
Can Mahmoud Abbas succeed where failure has been the common tongue?
Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Break it down strictly along lines of personality and background, and it's no wonder the White House and the Knesset prefer Mahmoud Abbas over Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister, is a man they believe they can deal with.

Instead of someone in army uniform, kaffiyeh headdress and unkempt beard, they get a clean-shaven figure who wears suits and ties and looks like a Wall Street executive. Instead of someone who trained as an engineer but devoted his life to armed conflict, they get an intellectual with a Ph.D. who has pursued peace negotiations with Israelis and written a book about it ("Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo," available on

"He's a man I can work with," President George W. Bush said in a recent Oval Office press briefing. "And I look forward to working with him, and will work with him, for the sake of peace, and for the sake of security."


An ability to work swiftly and effectively for change is especially important now after a series of suicide bombings in Israel has left the latest peace initiative hobbling and perhaps mortally wounded. One Palestinian Authority Cabinet member, Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr, said the attacks were aimed at undermining Abbas, who took office earlier this month. Bush last week placed a 15-minute call to Abbas, showing support for the new prime minister and indicating that he, not Arafat, is the Palestinian leader to whom the United States is looking for solutions.

The new violence drew tough words from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who canceled a trip to Washington last week. But Israeli officials have continued to meet with Abbas as a last Palestinian lifeline to peace.

In theory, Abbas sounds good, but can he -- or anyone at this point -- achieve something resembling peaceful coexistence? It may be that the Bush administration is making a crucial mistake -- not in its (long overdue) pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian solution or its admiration of Abbas, but in its reliance on him to be the anti-Arafat. Talk to Palestinians who know Abbas and Arafat, and talk to Palestinians who've experienced decades of political highs and lows, and they all say the same things:

-- When it comes to fundamental beliefs about the future status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and other key issues, Abbas and Arafat are identical twins, not polar opposites.

-- Abbas, more commonly called Abu Mazen ("Father of Mazen"), won't be able to contain Palestinian violence unless and until Israel withdraws its military from key areas, stops its own violence and lessens the economic strangulation of the Palestinian territories -- moves that may have to be imposed by Washington.

-- Despite Abbas' ascension to a position of authority, and despite the virtual house arrest that continues to handcuff Arafat in Ramallah, Arafat is widely beloved by Palestinians -- more so now because they resent the way Israel and the United States have tried to force him out of the picture. Arafat may be on the sidelines, but his influence is still steady.

In short, Abbas is in a precarious position, and few Palestinians really expect him to lead them to a Promised Land, notwithstanding the Bush- engineered road map for peace that aims for a state of Palestine in the year 2005.


"Abu Mazen has been given the closest thing to a 'Mission Impossible,' " says Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, in a phone interview from her offices in Jerusalem. "The decks are stacked against him. There are all sorts of issues that have to be dealt with for him to succeed. But the problem has never been a domestic Palestinian problem. It's been the problem of the occupation, lack of accountability and total immunity and impunity. Without curbing Israeli behavior and escalation and land confiscation and settlements and incursions and home demolitions, you can't expect the Palestinians to turn the other cheek. Of course, you can't expect them to build a perfect democracy when they have no freedom of movement and no security whatsoever."

Michael Tarazi, PLO legal adviser, says there is too much expectation that Abbas' position will magically change the situation on the ground.

"The Israelis have been very good about making this whole issue to be about one individual, Yasser Arafat -- that once you move him out of the way, you suddenly have a peace partner and we all sprout wings and play the harp and float around in paradise," Tarazi said in a phone interview. "This is not about an individual and it's not about personalities. It's about an occupation.

It's about international law. And regardless of what personality is leading whichever party, or whatever group -- and that includes Ariel Sharon and Abu Mazen -- the problems are still the same problems."


The mood isn't entirely dim on the streets of Israel or the West Bank and Gaza, and Ashrawi and others acknowledge there is debate among Palestinians about what they can do to clamp down on Palestinian violence and otherwise increase the chances that the road map is a viable blueprint.

"It doesn't help to be pessimistic," says Nabil Abu Znaid, a political scientist at Hebron University. "It's going to be very difficult, but the road map gives us something at least to have in hand. Many times, there is not much to play with. At least Abu Mazen is willing to make reforms. He's willing to do what should be done."


If Abbas can give Palestinians tangible results -- and the hope that their lives will soon improve -- then there's a chance he can persuade suicide bombers, Hamas and others to relinquish their violent ways and, ipso facto, meet one of Israel's key demands. People may not remember the post-Oslo environment when, at times, Palestinian violence against Israeli targets was contained. In late 1994, for example, Arafat's forces confronted Hamas, and there was even talk that Yitzhak Rabin would be willing to negotiate with the militant organization.

"During the Oslo process," Tarazi says, "we did play Israel's security subcontractor. We did crack down on Hamas, and very successfully so."

In some ways, Abbas is a perfect person to lead the Palestinians into such tenuous diplomatic waters. At age 68, he has been a prominent figure in Palestinian circles for decades. He's a founding member of Fatah, the largest political party in the PLO and the PLC, and he was the chief negotiator with Israel for the Oslo accords that were signed at the White House in 1993. He was also chief negotiator for the 2000 Camp David talks (which eventually broke down in acrimony). In the 1970s, he instigated discussions with Israeli peace groups -- a position that wasn't popular with many Palestinians, including those who, like him, were made refugees after Israel's creation in 1948.


Abbas grew up in Safad, in what is now Israel's Galilee region. He was the son of a cheese merchant, and he and his family fled to Damascus, Syria; Abbas earned a law degree from Damascus University. He has a doctorate in history from Oriental College, in Moscow, and has written three books, including a doctoral thesis that has been seen as damning evidence of his character.

"The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionism," has been criticized for asserting that fewer than 1 million Jews were slain in the Holocaust, and that they were killed as part of a Nazi-Zionist plot to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. But the book's existence hasn't stopped Israeli leaders -- including Sharon -- from embracing Abbas as a moderate figure who can re-establish their trust.


"Abu Mazen offers a chance to turn the situation around," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. "He has been saying over the past two years that terrorism is a mistake and that suicide bombings don't serve the Palestinians' national interests. If he follows through on what his verbal statements have been, then we can really turn the situation around on the ground."

Abbas has gone out of his way to meet with Sharon and create a pattern of negotiation -- and more of his own public profile.

"He's rather quiet, and not very fond of the limelight or the spotlight," says Ashrawi. "And he's quite straightforward. He doesn't play games. At the same time, he has never been a populist. He has never attempted to gain popular support. He has never run for election. He's never had to appeal to the masses. He's trying to get the job done. He knows there's a need for reform and a need for a peaceful resolution and that violence will get nobody anywhere."


Still, Fuad Ateyeh, a Palestinian activist in the Bay Area and former president of the Palestinian American Congress who has known Abbas for several years (and Arafat for 30), says he can't get excited about Abbas' new position because "he needs a partner for peace, and Sharon is not a partner. No matter what he does, nothing is going to happen, because Sharon has a different agenda. Nothing has changed for Palestinians. Abu Mazen is the right man at the wrong time. He worked very hard on the Olso agreements. He's a believer in the peace process. For the Israelis, the only job they want from him is to finish Islamic Jihad, Hamas and everyone who has a gun. But in return, they're not giving him anything. They keep escalating the situation."

Palestinians also feel they don't have a real advocate in Washington, despite the road map for peace and the earnest intentions of the White House.

When Colin Powell announced in a press conference with Abbas that the United States was going to contribute $50 million to develop the infrastructure of the Palestinian territories, several Palestinians in attendance audibly groaned -- not because it was too little money but because they believe money alone won't solve the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Painful choices have to be made, they say. Israel has to be pressured to withdraw to earlier borders. The questions of refugees and Jerusalem have to be dealt with, and there is no indication, they say, that Israel has changed its position on these areas. All of this, they say, is too much for one man with a new portfolio to bring about.

Palestinians are waiting, but they aren't holding their collective breaths. The position of prime minister is new, but they've been down this road of hope before, only to be disappointed and blamed when things went out of control. Only now, Abbas is at the wheel.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle