Walking a thin line

On September 12, 1993, while Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) waited excitedly on the White House lawn alongside Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, stealthy hands implanted a listening device in his office in Tunis. Adnan Yasin, a Palestinian recruited in Europe by the Israeli Mossad, took advantage of his boss’s absence and moved in new office equipment imported from Europe that contained a sophisticated monitoring device.

Thus it appears that even after the signing ceremony for the Oslo agreements, the Israelis insisted on checking the credibility of the Palestinian architect of their discreet contacts with the other side. Does Abu Mazen repeat to Arafat the promises he makes to Israel? Does he intend to honor the mutual recognition agreement? And in general, how does he conceive of the future relationship?

There were three corollaries to the Israeli operation: the listening equipment was discovered in an embarrassing incident; Adnan Yasin was held for questioning and thrown in jail; and Abu Mazen “passed the test” and was certified as credible.

In the ensuing ten years, Abu Mazen has undergone additional credibility tests, and not only by Israel. Every time a disagreement has emerged between him and Yasir Arafat, he has opted to take his distance. He would move to Amman, Tunis, Qatar or Saudi Arabia until things quieted down. In his “court”, which he took care not to turn into a center of power that might threaten Arafat, there have gathered Palestinian moderates. They will presumably accompany him when he occupies the prime minister’s office and appoints his ministers.

In Israel, even among Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s close entourage, there are no complaints against Abu Mazen. Israel could not ask for a Palestinian partner more moderate in his political approach, pleasant, informed, and determined to achieve a genuine agreement for coexistence, perhaps even peace.

The question, of course, is how independent he will be in making decisions and appointing officials. Does the devious Arafat intend to allow Abu Mazen to be little more than the “nice face” of the Palestinian Authority vis-a-vis the United States administration and PM Sharon, who in turn continue to boycott Arafat? Or will Abu Mazen receive and/or seize active authority–to run negotiations regarding the roadmap, and to rebuild Palestinian security institutions that will move with determination to stop terrorist attacks?

Abu Mazen gave clear expression to his opposition to terrorist attacks on Israelis in a lecture delivered several months ago in Gaza. That resolute declaration was well publicized in Israel and in Washington, and won him points that generated massive pressure for his appointment. In contrast with Arafat, whose signature decorates official documents that reflect his involvement in terrorist attacks and funding for terrorists and who talks in circles, Abu Mazen has never been caught out involved in or encouraging terrorism. He is an opportune partner for Israel, on condition that Arafat allows him to operate independently and he masters the very difficult formula for stopping terrorist activities.

In this regard it is notable that in Israeli eyes, the Israel Defense Force’s current efforts against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist centers are intended to ease Abu Mazen’s entry into his new position. Given the Israeli consensus in favor of boycotting Arafat, Israelis are barely containing their satisfaction and stifling their delight with Abu Mazen’s appointment. Of course the more they smother him with compliments, the more they will hurt and weaken his standing.

But how will Abu Mazen deal with the status of Jerusalem, the refugee problem, and the economic corruption within Palestinian Authority institutions? Palestinians are already pinning their hopes on him to produce a Palestinian state. Yet the Israeli side is working on a model of a Palestinian state that has no independent political security institutions, and only a weak link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Thus Abu Mazen is taking on a national task that looks almost like a mission impossible from the Palestinian standpoint. The extremist organizations, including those of Fateh, are just waiting for him to falter–almost as eagerly as those among us who oppose dismantling settlements and reject painful concessions are busily downplaying the importance of the new figure in the Palestinian Prime Minister’s Office.

Then too, the fragmented and divisive Arab world will not easily play the role of cheerleader as the new Palestinian prime minister seeks to establish his authority. True, Arafat has been removed almost entirely from the phone lists of the Arab leaders. But the door currently being held open for Abu Mazen in Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus and Amman is liable to be slammed in his face if he does not succeed in finding a formula to persuade all concerned that he has not become an American marionette or an Israeli collaborator, and that he has not crossed the line with regard to the key components and character of a Palestinian state.

Smadar Perry is Middle East Editor of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

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