An impressive beginning

In case we needed a reminder of the devastatingly negative effect the late Yasser Arafat had on the prospects for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is providing it. In scarcely days he has negotiated a ceasefire with Palestinian militants and begun redeploying Palestinian security forces to maintain the quiet. Security coordination with the Sharon government has been reestablished, and the two sides are poised to begin discussing additional confidence-building measures such as prisoner release and Israeli withdrawals from West Bank cities.

Nothing has changed but the Palestinian leadership.

Where do we go from here? The ceasefire–both among the Palestinian forces and between them and the Israel Defense Forces–is still very young and incomplete. Only the passage of time will tell us whether it is genuine, and in particular, whether Abbas’ control over his own security forces is sufficient. Beyond the obvious need for patience and good will on the part of both sides, there arises an additional requirement to translate the ceasefire into a new political process.

Here we return to the roadmap. Both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the international community represented by the Quartet, continue to address the roadmap as the desired political frame of reference. A comprehensive assessment of the ongoing relevance of the roadmap after years of bitter fighting and far-reaching local and regional strategic developments is beyond the scope of this article. But because we are ostensibly back in phase I of the roadmap, it is vital that we take note now of both parties’ obvious limitations.

Abu Mazen has made it absolutely clear that he has no intention of collecting illegal weapons and "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure", as phase I demands. Rather, he seeks to co-opt the militants into the existing Palestinian political and even police/military infrastructure. From the internal Palestinian standpoint the ceasefire is intended to provide breathing space for cooptation negotiations to take place and to succeed. PM Ariel Sharon for his part has found it impossible to "immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001". Essentially, he wants his intended dismantling of 21 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank to be recognized as a viable substitute process. Nor does he intend to reopen PLO institutions in East Jerusalem as phase I requires. Finally the Quartet, which was supposed to monitor the ceasefire, has thus far been caught off guard by developments; conceivably the US will soon begin to fill this role.

So both Israel and the PA are going to have to be flexible with their roadmap phase I demands if this ceasefire is to lead to a political process of some sort. In particular, Israel is going to have to agree to forego the forcible dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure and give Abu Mazen a chance to integrate Hamas and the Fateh dissidents into the Fateh-dominated PA political establishment, as he advocates. Is this a more effective vehicle for facilitating eventual coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state? The test will be whether this permanently ends Palestinian terrorism, bearing in mind that the total destruction of Hamas has proven a near impossible task for Israel, let alone the PA.

We demanded of Arafat that he end the violence by force of arms. This made sense, insofar as Arafat himself symbolized Palestinian violence. But we owe it to ourselves to give Abu Mazen’s way, which is diametrically opposed to Arafat’s strategy of violence, a decent chance.