The un-Arafat comes calling
By David Makovsky
and Dennis Ross
October 19, 2005
MAHMOUD ABBAS is a different kind of Palestinian president. Unlike his
predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who made a long-term strategy out of being
a victim, Abbas has made it clear that he seeks to build a political
culture of responsibility. He has repeatedly said (in both English and
Arabic) that violence is counterproductive to Palestinian aspirations.
While Arafat saw the misery of Palestinian refugees as a tool to be
exploited for political purposes, Abbas has now given two speeches in
the last month, in Arabic, declaring that it is time that Palestinians
built housing for the refugees and that the Palestinian cause is not
served by keeping refugees in wretched conditions. Such statements provide
a way to demystify the refugee issue as a calling card of Palestinian
grievance and as an impediment to an eventual peace agreement.
Whereas Arafat's focus was on the "revolution," Abbas said recently
that he should be judged on "reconstruction" — whether he makes
good on promises to build houses, schools and hospitals.
These are the things a Palestinian president should be doing, rather
than posturing, pandering and seeking to manipulate at the expense of
his own people. And on one level, at least, Abbas' approach seems to
be working: His approval rating has remained consistently above 60%
— virtually double Arafat's rating during his last few years.
But Abbas — who arrives in Washington this week for meetings with
President Bush — also faces immediate threats to his hold on power,
especially from Hamas and other militant groups. Though he certainly
must be much more decisive in confronting the challenge, it is also
essential that the U.S. does more to help build his authority.
The U.S. could do three things quickly to help bolster Abbas' credibility
before parliamentary elections scheduled for January. First, nothing
would enhance Abbas' authority more than showing that his way is working
and that Palestinians are going to work. Billions of dollars have been
pledged to restore the Palestinian economy, but little has been delivered.
The U.S. should spearhead the effort in the next 90 days to turn those
pledges into a new reality of jobs, especially in the labor-intensive
areas of housing and infrastructure construction. Why not send a U.S.-Palestinian
delegation to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — both
of which have pledged money for Palestinian housing — and have
it work out the immediate transfer of funds?
Second, the Palestinian economy cannot be viable without access into
and out of Gaza for people and goods — but at the same time, Israelis
have a right to know that such access won't be used to smuggle in terrorists
or weapons. The nut to crack is how to ensure that a third party at
crossing points (whether made up of Egyptians, Americans, Europeans
or others) has the ability not just to identify the smuggling of guns
or terrorists but to confiscate such materials and arrest such individuals.
Third, the U.S. needs to bridge the difference in expectations between
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on what is next. Abbas
wants to know that there is an ongoing peace process that will ensure
that "Gaza first" — the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza
that took place over the summer — is not "Gaza only." But Sharon,
having confronted his party and having put his country through a painful
decision, understandably wants to pause until he sees that the wrenching
steps that Israel took will be matched by Palestinian steps on security.
To bridge this difference, the Bush administration needs to transform
the "road map" to peace that was put together by the U.S., Russia, the
European Union and the United Nations from a list of slogans into an
action plan. Currently, there is not one obligation laid out in the
road map that is interpreted the same way by the two sides, and the
U.S. should take the lead in forging a common understanding by Israel
and the Palestinians of their responsibilities.
Abbas has other things he needs to do as well. He needs to follow through
with the security reforms he has said he supports — building more
professional, reliable security forces to combat chaos and lawlessness
in Gaza and the West Bank (which would also give him added confidence
in dealing with Hamas). And he needs to insist that any party participating
in the upcoming elections — including Hamas — must take
genuine, active steps toward disarmament.
Abbas has shown that he is committed to the rule of law, nonviolence
and coexistence, but he needs help to build his authority and prevail
over forces that reject any possibility of peace and reconciliation.
Bush must provide that help.
DENNIS ROSS, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
is a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East. DAVID MAKOVSKY, also a fellow
at the Washington Institute, is a former diplomatic correspondent for
the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Copyright 2005 Los