What Must Abu Mazen Do?

What Must Abu Mazen Do?

Abu Mazen, president of the Palestinian Authority, must seize the initiative. If he does not — if he meekly submits to the empty formula of ‘proximity talks’ — the Palestinian cause will simply slip further down the slope into ultimate oblivion, warns Patrick Seale.

But it is not at all clear that French President Nicolas Sarkozy can help him, so long as Abu Mazen himself is uncertain how he wishes to proceed. His interlocutors will want to hear a clear statement of the practical steps he envisages to break out of the current impasse.

Abu Mazen’s situation is unenviable. Palestinian statehood is slipping from his grasp. The two-state solution — internationally recognised as the only viable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — seems more than ever a mirage, as Israel continues its relentless seizure of Arab East Jerusalem, as well as the consolidation and expansion of its West Bank settlements.

What is Abu Mazen to do? His biggest disappointment lies with the United States. After raising Palestinian hopes a year ago by calling for a total halt to Israeli settlements, President Barack Obama then dashed them by accepting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s very partial, ten-month freeze as the best that could now be obtained. It would seem that not even the United States can stem Israel’s voracious land hunger.

The United States is now pressuring Abu Mazen to enter into “proximity talks” with Israel — that is to say indirect, American-mediated negotiations. But Washington has provided no clear terms of reference or guarantees as to the outcome. Such talks are therefore widely seen as yet another meaningless exercise, which could only further damage the Palestinian leader’s battered credibility.

From Abu Mazen’s point of view — a view shared by many Arabs — Obama has collapsed in the face of Israeli intransigence. He seems, indeed, to have adopted Israel’s terms, not only with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also the related subject of Iran.

During her visit last week to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to parrot the Israeli position. Instead of seeking Arab support for Obama’s fading vision of a two-state solution, her insistence — and her lurid language — was focussed on the alleged ‘threat’ to the region from the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was not clear, however, whether she had any success in mobilising Arab leaders in this cause.

Whatever their concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Arab Gulf States know that Iran is a powerful neighbor, whom they have no wish to confront, and with whom they must eventually come to terms. They are not reassured by America’s offer of a ‘nuclear umbrella’ to protect them against Tehran. Several Gulf rulers understand that, rather than arousing Iran’s suspicions, or joining in the overheated Israeli propaganda campaign against it, the best outcome would be to draw Iran into a regional security pact with its Arab neighbours.

As a prominent Gulf politician put it to me this week, “Asking us to fight Iran is like asking Finland to fight Russia. Washington does not seem to understand the geography of the region.”

Meanwhile, Abu Mazen’s greatest liability is the disarray in Palestinian ranks, notably the feud between Fatah and Hamas which, by providing Israel with the cynical argument that it has no ‘peace partner’, continues to do the greatest damage to Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Abu Mazen is well-known for opposing violent resistance to Israel — the main cause of his quarrel with Hamas — pinning his hopes instead on negotiations. The fact that these have yielded nothing over the past several years has gravely weakened him. This last year, encouraged by Obama’s early stance, he vowed not to re-enter negotiations unless Israel agreed to a total settlement freeze. But faced with U.S. pressure, he is being forced to soften his position — at the risk of facing more opprobrium from Palestinian militants.

If indirect talks are nothing but a trap — devised only to relieve Israel of American pressure — should not Abu Mazen make a bold break with the past? What if he were to announce the following program, as some of his advisers are said to be urging?

• His first priority should be to arrive at a common stance with Hamas, doing his utmost to bridge the small remaining gap between them over the Egyptian reconciliation document. In Paris he should plead for France to engage in a dialogue with Hamas and press for a lifting of the Israeli siege on Gaza. Drawing Hamas into the peace process is an essential condition for success. Peace talks without the participation of Hamas — or at least its explicit consent — would lead nowhere.

• Abu Mazen should urge Obama to make a direct appeal to the Israeli public in favour of peace — over the head of the fanatical settlers and of Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition. Obama has repeatedly attempted to persuade the Arab and Muslim world of his friendship — although he has so far done little to prove it — but he has not yet preached the benefits of peace to the highly sceptical Israelis. An appeal by him could yet turn the tide.

• Abu Mazen should boldly declare that he has had second thoughts about refusing to negotiate without a settlement freeze. Instead, he should say that he will give negotiations with Israel one last chance, but will set a strict time limit. If no substantial progress is achieved within one year, he will break off the talks and demand that the UN Security Council address the conflict. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council has the power to “determine the existence of any threat to peace” and take necessary action “to restore international peace and security.”

• Finally, Abu Mazen should reject negotiations mediated by the United States alone. A wider international involvement is required, perhaps spearheaded by France and Russia, who could jointly sponsor a peace conference either in Paris or in Moscow. Such a multilateral framework for the talks would give the Palestinians some assurance of not being bludgeoned into a deal against their will.

Will Abu Mazen seize the initiative in some way such as this? If he does not — if he meekly submits to the empty formula of ‘proximity talks’ — the Palestinian cause will simply slip further down the slope into ultimate oblivion.