After Arafat, Arafat II? Abu Mazen’s election will do little to revive the peace process, argues Immanuel Wallerstein*


Mahmoud Abbas has been elected president of the Palestinian Authority to succeed Yasser Arafat. Will this make any difference? Is the creation of a Palestinian state nearer? Are the possibilities of an Israeli-Palestine agreement nearer? Many hope so, but the chances are thin.

Since 2001, when there were new governments in Israel and the United States, both Ariel Sharon and George W Bush refused to have any contact whatsoever with Arafat. They argued that Arafat represented an insurmountable obstacle to peace. In effect, Sharon placed him under virtual house arrest, and tried (by and large successfully) to keep any and all representatives of other governments from visiting him. When, however, Abbas was elected as Arafat’s successor, he received telephone calls from both Bush and Sharon congratulating him. Hence the total ban on contact with the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been lifted (but was then reinstated by Sharon a few days later). Now what?

The Israel/Palestine conflict is one of those long- lasting conflicts in which each side represents a group which has profoundly opposing interests such that there is no way that both sides can achieve their maximal objectives. This means that, short of the total elimination by one side of the other, the only solution is a political compromise that is extremely painful. This is exactly why these conflicts are long-lasting. Twenty years ago, I was in a meeting in which the conflicts in Israel/Palestine and in South Africa were being compared. I said that, while I was mildly optimistic that the first might be resolved in the decade or two to come, I was sure that there was no possibility of a political compromise in South Africa. I was obviously wrong. Exactly the opposite happened. Beginning in 1990 and ending in 1994, a compromise was indeed achieved in South Africa. During the same period, the conflict in Israel/Palestine has proved to be much more stubborn.

It is always useful in such situations to review what the worst fears on each side are. On the Israeli side, the fear is that the state of Israel as a Jewish state will be abolished. On the Palestinian side, the fear is that the Palestinian state as a viable state will never be created. So, the question is, can there be a solution that involves two states, both of which are viable and both of which are ready to live in real peace with each other? In the attempts over the past 20 years to arrive at a solution, three issues have produced the greatest difficulty: the boundaries of two such states, Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The continuing face of violence has not been the obstacle to the solution; it is the consequence of the absence of a solution. The Israelis have been insisting that the Intifada be ended completely before they will negotiate, and that the Palestinian Authority directly suppress those who continue it. The Palestinians have insisted that the Israeli state cease its occupation of the areas which are theoretically already under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, cease the expansion of settlements, and liberate prisoners. Neither side has ceded to the demands of the other, which in effect are demands about steps preceding real negotiations.

It is always totally unrealistic in long-standing conflicts for either side to demand that the other disarm in any meaningful way. They never will do this before a settlement. But a settlement requires that the leaders of each side are in a strong enough position to bring along the overwhelming majority of their constituents when they make painful compromises. This is what made the compromise in South Africa possible. Mandela and the ANC really could ensure that the people they represented would accept arrangements made by them. And De Klerk and the National Party really could ensure that the White population and the armed forces would accept arrangements made by them. Dissenters would be marginal.

This is exactly what is missing in Israel/Palestine. Even if Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon entered into discussions in full good faith, it is quite doubtful that either could guarantee that their populations would accept compromise arrangements. Abbas is being hailed by the press as someone whose style and outlook is different from that of Arafat. Style yes, outlook probably not. If Abbas, who was not particularly popular in Palestinian polls as of six months ago, won so easily, it is because Fatah, as the largest organisation of Palestinian struggle, wanted to present a united front and minimise any excuse for Sharon (and Bush) not to negotiate. And Hamas was willing to go along, by in effect abstaining from the election, for the same reason.

But Abbas is on a short leash. He must produce serious results, and produce them rapidly. For the Palestinians, that means he must achieve the creation of a state in all (or virtually all) of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, a state that will be fully sovereign. And he must obtain some concession on the right to return if only a small one. Of course, this is exactly what Arafat had been trying to achieve. Arafat failed to achieve it, but he continued to have the credit of being the historic leader of the Palestinian movement, and of being someone who really tried. Abbas, while a militant of Fatah from the beginning and for a long time a top leader, is not Arafat and cannot coast on glory.

Sharon has built his career on opposing giving up most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem to the Palestinians and on not entertaining the idea of even a token resettlement of refugees. It is clear that he is on an even shorter leash than Abbas. Although, from the Palestinian point of view, his plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is at most a minor concession, he is meeting fierce resistance from within Israel and it is not at all clear that he can pull it off. The idea that he could agree to boundaries of a Palestinian state that would include all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem defies the political logic of the moment.

So, where are we? We shall probably see some desultory negotiations which will go nowhere. Sharon will continue to insist that Abbas arrest all those who engage in violence. Abbas will continue to refuse to do this, limiting his efforts to trying to persuade Al-Aqsa Brigade, Hamas, and others to engage in an indefinite truce. When this doesn’t succeed, as it probably will not, Sharon will begin to accuse Abbas of being Arafat II. Or, if Abbas does do what Sharon wants, before getting a state for the Palestinians with boundaries that are acceptable, he will lose the temporary legitimacy that he has, and probably be isolated among his people.

Outside intervention is a chimera. The only power that can intervene effectively is the United States, and the Bush administration simply will not break in any significant way with Sharon. This is for many reasons, not the least of which is the strength of Christian Zionism among the Christian right supporters of the Bush administration.

Of course, miracles sometimes occur. And the Holy Land is supposed to be the locus of miracles. But a secular political analysis of the situation does not encourage much immediate hope. After Arafat, almost surely Arafat II.

* The writer is director of the Fernand Braudel Centre at Binghamton University (SUNY), New York, and senior research scholar at Yale University