By Amir Taheri, an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam and
a member of Benador Associates.
January 5, 2005.
AS Palestinians prepare to go to the polls on Sunday, even skeptics admit that
things have gone better than expected. Yasser Arafat, who dominated
Palestinian politics for almost four decades, is fading into memory along with
his autocratic and corrupt rule. The institutions that he had tried to undermine
appear to be working in accordance with a constitution that he had violated
There is little doubt that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will be elected as
Palestinian chairman (or president, as some prefer) with a convincing majority
that will give him the democratic legitimacy that Arafat lacked.
Yet Abbas will be everybody’s second choice. And therein lies both his
weakness and his strength.
The Arafatists want Abbas because they know he has no power base of
his own – and may thus be bullied into adopting at least part of their agenda
and preserving at least some of their ill-gained privileges.
The democrats hope that Abbas will prepare the ground for genuine
democratization – and thus allow them a greater hope of winning with a
candidate of their own next time round.
The “Wipe Israel Off the Map” groups see Abbas as a stopgap leader
who could buy them time to strengthen their positions, especially in Gaza,
before making their own bid for power.
Many in the outside world (including the Arab states, Israel and Washington)
also see Abbas as their second-best choice, albeit for different reasons.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has gone out of his way to praise
Abbas, who is also the only Palestinian leader to have shaken hands with
President Bush. In the past few weeks Abbas, has received red-carpet
welcomes from a dozen Arab leaders during a high-profile tour of the Middle
All that is good news – which explains the wave of optimism that seems to be
sweeping away whatever is left of realism with regard to a conflict that has
defied logic for more than half a century.
The bad news is that there is no indication that a majority either of the
Palestinians or of the Israelis are prepared to quickly switch from a mood of
conflict to one of peace, if not reconciliation.
It would be foolish to assume that we are at the threshold of a golden age in
the Middle East. Nor is it wise to assume that Arafat, for all his many failings,
was the sole cause of a deadlock that has caused grief to both the Israelis and
the Palestinians since 2000.
The truth is that hostility among Palestinians to the very existence of Israel
today is greater than 13 years ago, when the peace process was launched in
Why? The Palestinian Authority under Arafat pursued a strategy of
vilifying Israel, especially via the educational system and the media in the
occupied territories, as a means of regaining some of the legitimacy that it had
lost as a result of the deals it made in Oslo.
Israel, too, is less ready for peace than 13 years ago. It is enough to scan the
Israeli media, follow the Knesset debates and look at election results and
opinion polls to gauge the mistrust that many Israelis, if not most, feel toward
their Palestinian neighbors.
The standard suggestion as how to get round these truths is that Washington
should take the lead by reviving the peace process. Some European and Arab
opinion-makers are already preparing the ground for blaming the United States
for the inevitable failure of any attempt to come up with a quick-fix solution.
The argument is that real or feigned passion over the Palestinian cause is
the root cause of anti-Americanism in many Arab and other Muslim countries.
Yet President Bush would be making a mistake by transforming the
Israel-Palestine conflict into an American problem.
Even experts on the issue have lost count of the number of conferences
held, resolutions passed and peace plans drafted to deal with this conflict.
Every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has grappled with this issue and
failed – because producing peace between protagonists that are not ready for it
is not within the gift of any outsider.
Having talked to Arafat on many occasions since 1975, I never managed to find
out exactly what it was he wanted. Whenever asked what might be acceptable
to him as the basis for a peaceful solution, he would come up with clichÃ©s such
as “we want justice” or “we settle for nothing short of our full rights.”
Many Israelis believe that Arafat secretly dreamed of destroying the Jewish
state altogether. This may well have been the case; much in Arafat’s behavior
might support such an assumption. But my guess is that Arafat never
formulated a strategy because he believed that the problem was too big for him
to gauge, let alone solve.
THE first step toward any peacemaking (which is bound to be a very long-term
process) is to deflate the issue to its real dimensions. Any would-be mediator
must begin by asserting that this is a Palestinian and Israeli problem that can
only have a Palestinian and Israeli solution. The idea that Bush or anyone else
can devise and impose a solution is both fanciful and dangerous.
Once we have established that this is an Israeli and Palestinian problem, and
not an international one, the next step would be to ask the two protagonists to
state exactly what they want in order to make peace.
There are more than two dozen so-called peace plans named after
various U.S. presidents, Israeli premiers, Arab kings and rulers and European
politicians. But there is none named after any Palestinian leader. The truth is
that no one knows what it is, in concrete terms, that the Palestinians want.
The second step toward meaningful negotiations (as opposed to photo-ops on
the White House lawn or at Sharm el-Sheikh) is for Mahmoud Abbas to produce
his peace plan – and then to get it approved by the Palestinian National Council
(parliament) or even endorsed in a popular referendum.
With a clear mandate to negotiate, Abbas could then demand that Israel come
up with a peace plan of its own. The two plans could then provide the basis of
negotiations aimed at producing a synthesis acceptable to both sides. That
synthesis could, in turn, be put to referendums in both Israel and the Palestinian
Any new Bush (or Blair or Chirac) plan will lead nowhere except to new illusions
followed by fresh disappointments. The message of the outside world to the
Israelis and Palestinians should be simple and frank: We are ready to help you
make peace – but we can’t make peace for you.