Here are two tests of Abu Mazen’s capacity, if and when he becomes prime minister, to function independently enough of Yasir Arafat in order to have a chance to succeed.
First, will he appoint his own man–say, Jibril Rajoub or Mohammad Dahlan–as minister of interior, to replace Hani al-Hassan as the official in charge of suppressing Palestinian terrorism? Al-Hassan reports to Arafat, who appointed him. Rajoub or Dahlan, both of whom have had serious disagreements with Arafat in the past year, would report to Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). They would also provide him with some of the security “divisions” he needs to function independently of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Secondly, when Abu Mazen’s senior ministers are dispatched for high level political talks in Jerusalem or Washington, will they be briefed in advance, and debriefed upon return, by Arafat or by Abu Mazen? Under the current state of the reform process which has produced the new office of prime minister, these ministers will have been appointed by Abu Mazen. Yet Arafat ostensibly remains in charge of issues of war and peace. Whoever briefs and debriefs Palestinian negotiators will be seen as the real authority.
If Abu Mazen can pass these two tests, then his appointment could conceivably be termed a dramatic breakthrough. Otherwise, it is merely important.
Important, because in any event this is the beginning of the succession process that will eventually replace Arafat. Important, because Abu Mazen is more moderate than Arafat, and because a full time governmental administrator is a genuine step toward better Palestinian civil and political life. And important, because somewhere down the road, the successor to Abu Mazen (who, at 67, is not much younger than Arafat), will likely be a younger “insider” Palestinian less burdened than the Arafat/Abu Mazen generation by the legacy of the naqba of 1948, refugee status, the right of return, and the heavy psychological need to extract from Israel an acknowledgement that it was “born in sin.”
Not all aspects of Abu Mazen’s success depend on him. He enters an international political equation in which all three serving principals–Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and United States President Bush–have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not have a realistic strategy for peace. Assuming Abu Mazen can indeed neutralize Arafat, he will still require from Sharon some genuine confidence-building gestures, such as military redeployment and renewed security cooperation, in order even to begin to restore order inside Palestine. And he will need Bush to begin pressuring Sharon, first on settlements and then on a rapid timetable for genuine Palestinian statehood, neither of which Sharon or his government appear capable of providing on their own.
At present, none of these three figures appears to be genuinely inclined to help the incoming Palestinian prime minister in a substantive way. Arafat, typically, is slowing down the appointment process with subterfuges. Sharon and his new government are expanding the settlement enterprise. And Bush, with his March 14 statement, is using–or abusing–the Palestinian issue in order to score last minute points with the international community prior to going to war in Iraq.
Finally, in addition to his relative moderation and his total lack of involvement in terrorism, Abu Mazen brings to office one quality that is unusual in this part of the world, and that may or may not serve him in good stead: he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is not an entrenched bureaucrat; he is not afraid to quit his post and go off to Morocco or Qatar in protest over unfair or ill-considered decisions by Arafat.
This may be helpful, in the sense that he won’t let Arafat push him around. But on the other hand, without near fanatic determination to succeed in his new job against all odds, Abu Mazen may fail.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”