U.S. Wants Abu Mazen to Succeed

In his statements about Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has repeatedly brought up the Israeli-Palestinian issue and made clear that he and other European leaders are anxious to force Israel down their road. While they will ultimately have no real say in the negotiations, Israelis do need to worry that the United States shares this obsession.

The U.S. State Department definitely will be pushing as soon as possible to get the parties on the road. While Israelis may have guarded optimism about the appointment of Abu Mazen, you can count on the Arabists at State to see his appointment as the means to cut the legs out from under Prime Minister Sharon by arguing that the Palestinians now have a moderate leader committed to peace, and that the only remaining obstacles to the Messianic age are the presence of Israeli troops and settlers in the territories.

To his credit, Secretary of State Colin Powell did not accept Abu Mazen’s appointment unconditionally, saying that the key would be whether the new prime minister has real authority. So far it appears that Arafat has turned the U.S. objective on its head; that is, rather than adopting the Israeli model whereby the prime minister is the decision-maker and the president the figurehead, he is trying to impose the Egyptian example of a largely powerless prime minister and an omnipotent president.

Based on past precedent, it is likely the Arabists will seize on whatever minimal powers Abu Mazen is given to argue that Israel must now take steps to show its good faith and strengthen the new leader’s position. It is in Israel’s interest to show Palestinians that Abu Mazen can bring them a better life than Yasser Arafat did through his corrupt and violent regime; still, Israel can’t take any steps along the prescribed path unless Abu Mazen has both the will and authority to destroy Hamas and Islamic Jihad and reign in the PLO factions. The good news is that Administration officials outside the State Department understand this, so there will be yet another tug-of-war between the “striped-pants boys” in Foggy Bottom who convinced President Bush to make the mistake of going to the UN over Iraq, and the realists in the White House and Pentagon who recognized the impotence of the UN, and who are now orchestrating the military victory.

It is clear from Blair’s emphasis on what should be an irrelevant issue during the current conflict that President Bush will be under tremendous pressure not only from Powell, but from his European allies to quickly shift the focus from Iraq to Israel and the Palestinians. Many prominent officials will argue that concentrating on the quartet’s plan will provide an opportunity to rebuild strained ties with France, Germany, and Russia, and make the UN relevant again. A strong counter argument can and should be made that those parties’ performance in recent weeks proved them particularly ill-suited to participate in the peace process. The truth, which France has tried so hard to undermine, is that the United States is the only country that has the will, the credibility, and the capability to fight for freedom and democracy.

Pressure must be kept on Arafat. There can be no compromise. Abu Mazen must be given every chance to succeed, but that is only possible if the United States makes clear that he will only be an interlocutor if he has authority for peace and security, and if he takes immediate steps to stop the violence. Just as Saddam Hussein was given benchmarks to prove he was disarming, Abu Mazen should be given specific tasks to demonstrate he is prepared to make peace with Israel. These should include the arrest of the leaders of all the terrorist organizations, the confiscation of illegal weapons, the cessation of all forms of incitement, and pronouncements in the Arab media that he intends to negotiate peace with Israel. If Abu Mazen can accomplish these objectives, the United States should then offer support and begin the still difficult task of mediating direct negotiations between Abu Mazen and Ariel Sharon to bring an end to the conflict.

Developments in the region have created a rare window of optimism. The question is whether the leaders who are liberating Iraq will force it open wider or if those who counseled appeasement will slam it shut.