2003 May 02 Friday
Terrorism Will Not Be Stopped By New Palestinian Prime Minister

The Bush Administration decided a year or two ago that Arafat is never going to make a peace deal with Israel that he will honor and adhere to. Therefore the United States has been exerting a lot of diplomatic energy to reduce Yasir Arafat's control of the Palestinian Authority. These efforts have resulted in the creation of the position of Prime Minister as a new center of authority in the Palestinian Authority government.

The New York Times states the conventional wisdom:

That ability of Palestinians to take control of the land they live on is at the heart of the matter. An authority that will not exercise authority is no authority and fails the first qualification for statehood. When Arafat refused to use his police power - giving terrorists the licence to kill - Israel's defence forces had to fill the vacuum and moved in. As soon as Abbas and his security minister, Muhammad Dahlan, become the undisputed law in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel can safely withdraw.

The theory behind the shift of Palestinian power from President (really dictator) Yassir Arafat to the newly created post of Prime Minister (with Mahmoud Abbas as the first holder of the office) is that Abbas will use his power to crack down on terrorism. Abbas's cracking down on the terrorists, the theory goes, will make him more appealing as a "partner for peace" to the Israelis and will demonstrate his willingness and ability to enforce the provisions of a to-be-negotiated peace accord with the Israelis. Therefore the appointment of Abbas as Palestinian Prime Minister is supposed to restart the so-called peace process.

An Israeli government spokesman said if Abbas succeeds in halting terrorism, "then clearly they will find Israel as a willing partner on the road to renew the peace process."

Of course, my use of the phrase "so-called peace process" betrays a certain amount of cynicism. But before we get to the prospects for the "peace process" (a term that strikes me as very Orwellian) let us look at what the United States and Israel are expecting from Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas.

His balancing act will include cracking down on militants without triggering civil war, easing powers away from Yasser Arafat without being accused of betraying a national symbol and re-establishing trust with Israel after 31 months of fierce violence without abandoning the Palestinians’ bedrock positions.

Abbas is supposed to get help in this endeavour from his interior minister/security minister Mohammed Dahlan. The New York Times has run an article entitled "Palestinian Security Ace: Muhammad Yusuf Dahlan" arguing that Dahlan may be able to lock up the terrorist organization leaders among the Palestinians.

In his previous job as head of the Palestinians' Preventive Security forces in Gaza, Mr. Dahlan was responsible for the arrests of many senior Hamas leaders in 1996, after a wave of suicide bombings against Israel. For Israel, this is proof that the Palestinian security forces can act if they have the will.

However, some view Dahlan as the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

Dahlan himself has been personally involved in orchestrating attacks on Israelis. The CIA is reported to have a recording of him ordering the November 2000 school bus bombing at Kfar Darom in which two teachers were killed and nine others wounded and resulted in his becoming the subject of a $250 million federal lawsuit in the United States. He is also one of six officials named in a case taken against the Palestinian Authority by the family of Yaron Ungar, who was shot with his wife in 1996. It has further been alleged that he personally assisted al-Qaida and Hizbullah terrorists operating in the Gaza Strip.

The US government has led a process with the EU, Russian, and the UN (the so-called Quartet) to produce a "road map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The full text is available here and here. As part the road map plan Israel is supposed to freeze all settlement activity and the PA is supposed to lock up and shut down the terrorists who are attacking Israeli targets.

The creation of the Prime Minister position as part of a plan to reduce the power of Arafat is called for in the road map. US diplomatic efforts to restructure the Palestinian Authority have been underway for many months in advance of the release of the road map. The road map calls for a consolidation of all Palestinian security services under the Interior Minister (i.e. under Dahlan). But so far Arafat has managed to keep some security organs beyond Dahlan's control.

The national security council is to include Arafat, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Dahlan, Arafat's personal security adviser Hani al-Hassan, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian national security commander Haj Ismail Jabar. Tawfik a-Tirawi and Faisel Abu Sarah - whose security mechanisms (General Intelligence and Force 17) remain under Arafat and need not answer to Dahlan - will also be on the council.

Also, there are signs that Abbas and Dahlan will not make a large effort to round up the Palestinian terrorists. Writing in in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz Amos Harel reports that Prime Minister Abbas will not attack the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.

Military Intelligence told the political echelon at the beginning of the week that the new Palestinian government headed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has no intention of uprooting the terrorist infrastructure. "According to what we know now, Abu Mazen plans to speak with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, and not clash with them," a senior military source told Haaretz yesterday.

The Ha'artz article rings true to me. There will be terrorist attack business as usual for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and organizations that Arafat continues to control. We are not going to witness "All Quiet On The Terrorist Front" as a prelude to the next negotiated agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

What does all this mean? George W. Bush and Tony Blair are keen to negotiate a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. They see such a step as essential to improving Muslim views of the West and hence helpful on the larger war on terrorism. But a number of obstacles remain in the way for making such a deal. Some Palestinian groups likely will continue to make terrorist attacks. The Israelis will probably continue to build settlements. Arafat still has a lot of power and is opposed to a deal. The radical factions are opposed as well. Still, Bush and Blair are probably determined to make a deal. Israel may be pressured by the Bush Administration to negotiate a deal with the PA while terrorist attacks are still taking place. Israel will also experience much more pressure to stop building up and creating new settlements.

But it takes both sides to make a deal and it is the Palestinian side that is the biggest reason for pessimism. Arafat may manage to retain enough power outside of the hands of Abbas and Dahlan that they will not be in a position strong enough to enforce a deal even if they wanted to. Heck, will they even be able to sign a deal with Israel and the United States without Arafat also agreeing to sign to make it truly legally binding on the PA? Another problem is that the PA has legitimacy problems among the Palestinian populace. With those legitimacy problems already existing to the extent that Abbas and Dahlan crack down on terrorists they will be seen by many Palestinians as being puppets of the Israelis. Also, factions within the PA will oppose such efforts. Radical factions among the Palestinians will denounce any agreement with Israel as a sell-out of the Palestinian people. Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other groups in the Palestinian area will not accept the validity of any signed agreement.

Is the diplomatic path the only way forward? A diplomatic agreement may not be possible. No PA leader may have enough authority (and fearlessness - they no doubt remember Sadat's fate) to agree that Palestinians will never be able to move to Israel proper. A partial attempt by the PA to stop terrorist attacks may leave Israelis with the view that the PA wouldn't honor an agreement while at the same time the partial attempt to stop the attacks (assuming such an attempt is made) may reduce popular Palestinian support for the PA so much that the PA leaders will believe they lack the authority to neogotiate a deal that doesn't meet Palestinian expectations. But diplomats want diplomatic agreements. Therefore the pressure to negotiate will continue.

Israel does have another option: unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank combined with construction of a wall. The wall would greatly reduce the number of terrorist attacks launched into Israel proper. But the unilateral withdrawal scenario is unlikely as well because the Israeli settlers are a well-organized and higly motivated group in Israeli politics. The unilateral withdrawal option would not give Israel all that it desires. Israel would have to force the settlers to withdraw but with no concessions from the Palestinians or Arab countries. Plus, there'd be no settlement of the status of Jerusalem, of the control of the Jordanian border with the West Bank, or some other issues. Israel would like to get diplomatic recognition from various Arab countries and a more explicit acceptance of Israel's right to exist from the PA as well. But all that diplomatic advantage can only come with a negotiated agreement.

I personally favor unilateral withdrawal from the territories combined with the construction of a wall. It will leave a number of issues unresolved. Would Israel still allow Palestinians to travel to Israel to work? Who would control the West Bank border with Jordan? Who would control East Jerusalem? But the unilateral option has one big advantage: it increases moral clarity. Israel could no longer be portrayed as colonial ruler and stealer of land in the territories (to be fair, the Israelis really have stolen land from a number of Palestinians - even in recent years).

Even with a wall there would still be some terrorist attacks. But it would be clearer to casual observers that the underlying motivation for the attacks would be opposition to the very existence of Israel. That is a clarity that would benefit Israel greatly.

Would an Israeli withdrawal from the territories make any difference in the views of the proverbial Arab street toward the West and toward America in particular? Maybe.

Update: There is one other problem with an Israeli unilateral withdrawal: With far fewer Israeli forces longer operating (there'd still be undercover agents no doubt) in the territories the various terrorist organizations would be free to rebuild and would eventually become far larger than they are now. While the walls would make attacks more difficult they wouldn't stop them entirely. It is possible that the terrorist organizations would find ways to launch mortar, missile, and other attacks into Israel proper.

In spite of this I still think it is in Israel's best interest to do the withdrawal behind a wall approach. The main big advantage is that provides Israel with an easier message to make internationally and in the United States in particular. It would be more difficult for the Palestinians to portray themselves as victims if the Israeli forces were not in the territories. Also, it is possible that some Palestinians would become less hostile toward Israel if new settlements were not being constructed and Israeli forces were no longer in the territories.

If the terrorist attacks from the unoccupied territories became too much the Israelis could always reenter them. There'd be some casualties in the Israeli forces from such an operation but it is not clear that the total number of casualties among the Israeli citizens and military would be higher overall in the withdrawal and reentrance scenario.

The biggest advantage of the withdrawal is that it would provide clear evidence of the nature of the hostility that the Palestinians and the Arabs as a whole have toward Israel. Is it due to the settlements and Israeli military presence? Or is it more due to the very existence of the state of Israel? I tend toward the latter view. But a unilateral withdrawal would move us from endless speculation and accusation into the realm of real world empirical evidence.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 02 02:38 AM  MidEast Arabs Versus Israelis


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