Attitude problem

About ten days ago I asked a senior American diplomat who knows the Arab world well and meets regularly with the Palestinian leadership, what he believes the Palestinians most urgently need from Israel. Notably, at the top of his list were not the outposts or the checkpoints, nor even gestures like release of prisoners. First and foremost, he explained, the Palestinians require an Israeli attitude change: more support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and for his peace platform.

That is not what Abbas heard from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last Tuesday. As the cameras were rolling in his Jerusalem residence, Sharon opened their summit meeting by taking Abbas to task for not stopping the rising wave of Palestinian terrorism.

Sharon’s anger was understandable, as was his need to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he has not gone soft on the terrorism issue. The summit was ushered in by new and bloody acts of Palestinian terrorism. Just a day earlier, a woman had been caught at the Erez crossing, laden with explosives that she intended to detonate in an Israeli hospital; she had been sent by a faction of the al-Aqsa Brigades, itself a faction of Fateh, Abbas’ movement. During the month before her appearance, Israel had demanded, to no avail, that Palestinian security forces apprehend her dispatcher. There could be no clearer statement of Abbas’ failure thus far to deal with terrorism.

But there could also be no clearer statement of Sharon’s attitude toward the Palestinians. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Sharon’s public humiliation of Abbas and his entourage reflected not only genuine anger, but also a constant belief that this is the only efficient way to treat the Palestinian leadership–the only way it will "get the message".

Sharon, after all, has opted for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza precisely because he does not believe we have a viable partner. He belongs to an "old school" of Israelis who have always held that Arabs only understand force and humiliation.

Needless to say, there is a complementary "they only understand the language of force" school on the Arab side. But Abbas does not belong to it. With all his faults, the Palestinian leader has registered some remarkable accomplishments in less than six months: reform, democratization, ceasefire, and the strategy of non-violence. If he is perceived by his constituents as having failed, the alternative is probably another round of violence, with no one to talk to because there appears to be only one Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine.

Prior to their meeting, Sharon and Abbas’ aides did agree, with American help, on a number of impressive collaborative steps to facilitate disengagement and render life inside the Gaza Strip more palatable. These include preparations to open air and sea ports, agreed destruction of the settlers’ homes by Israel and removal of the debris by Palestine, preparations for "safe passage" and Palestinian force transfers to the Strip, etc. Sharon could have emphasized these positive aspects in his public statement to Abbas, but chose not to.

In recent years, at the height of the intifada, I frequently noted that the situation would not change until one or more members of the leadership triangle of Bush, Arafat and Sharon produced a realistic strategy for peace. In recent months we’ve witnessed a move, however hesitant, in the right direction.

Abbas replaced Arafat and presented a strategy for peace, albeit an unrealistic one. Sharon took a welcome initiative for disengagement, but unilaterally and without any clear transition to a peace process or even to an additional disengagement. And Bush gave his blessing to both leaders’ initiatives, but is too busy elsewhere in the region and apparently too frightened of failure here to go beyond mere rhetoric.

In retrospect, last week’s Sharon-Abbas meeting probably should not have taken place. It’s no secret that the two leaders preferred not to meet, that the positive agreements were reached beforehand, and that their summit was held under pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The latter’s performance while visiting the region prior to the summit was well focused on the immediate task of disengagement. Nevertheless, it suffered from a dangerous American inclination to assess that a one day appearance in the region–the Bush administration’s version of Middle East shuttle diplomacy–is sufficient, and that the rest will be done by Wolfensohn and Ward, Abrams and Welch.

Abbas’ weakness needs little elaboration. As for Sharon, his need to be seen denigrating Abbas at the meeting demonstrated just how politically vulnerable he really is. He’ll be lucky if he reaches the disengagement deadline of August 15 with a majority coalition, and even luckier if the coalition survives the trauma of disengagement itself.