Yasser Arafat's appointment of Abu Mazen as his "prime minister" may not be of short-term importance, but it is of far greater long-term significance.
Anyone who has studied Arafat's record should know that he does not yield power to anyone and that his frequent promises of change are never implemented. He remains incapable of making a peace agreement with Israel, but this does not mean he might not decide to accept a cease-fire some time this year.
Already the fine print has appeared: Abu Mazen, Arafat explains, will deal only with "domestic" issues and will have nothing to do with such matters as Palestinian "foreign policy," including relations with Israel or security matters, including control of the military forces or ending the current fighting.
In short, Abu Mazen is expected to leave all the important issues to Arafat while taking the blame for the collapse of the Palestinian Authority's social services and economy.
The last time Arafat promised to institutionalize Abu Mazen's position was in the 1990s, when on more than one occasion Arafat proclaimed him the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel. Each time Arafat bypassed or ignored Abu Mazen so much that he dropped out and went home. This pattern could easily repeat itself. In fact, it is the most likely outcome.
Cynicism is an appropriate response. Yet this does not mean that the step is of no importance, just that it might take more patience to see results.
Nominally, Arafat's latest maneuver is the result of international pressure on him to share authority a bit with someone more reliable and stable. Having made this "concession" he now wants to receive appropriate gifts in return. Yet while the foreign demands made actual change possible, this was also an aid and encouragement to those Palestinian leaders who were pushing in the same direction.
Broadly speaking, there are now two unorganized factions among Palestinians that do not run along traditional lines. Many Fatah leaders including Abu Mazen, parliament speaker Abu Ala, security chiefs Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub as well as relatively moderate independents have come to the conclusion that Arafat is leading them to disaster. Unable to win and unwilling to end his war on Israel, he cannot provide either an end to the Israeli "occupation" or an independent state. Continuing the current battle is destroying all the material gains Palestinians made in the last decade.
These are sufficient reasons to change course and at least do what is needed to gain a real cease-fire in a war the Palestinians are losing.
But there's more. By pursuing this strategy and not reining in the Islamist groups, Arafat is jeopardizing, more than at any other time in 40 years, the hegemony of Fatah. Arafat is essentially following the same tactical approach as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, seeking victory through "military means" unbridled terrorism. By glorifying revolution and armed struggle at this point in history, Arafat is giving those groups credible appearance as the proper Palestinian leadership.
He has encouraged close Fatah-Hamas cooperation, and when the Islamists have ignored the Palestinian Authority or even murdered Fatah officials, Arafat has done nothing. This is incredibly irresponsible, even by Arafat's usual standards.
MOREOVER, the reading of Israeli intentions, even if quite erroneous, contributes to this concern over Arafat's behavior. Since most Palestinian leaders believe that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is plotting to reconquer the West Bank and Gaza Strip permanently, expel the PA (or even all Palestinians) and fill the land with settlements, many of them must see Arafat's strategy as playing right into his hands.
Of course, many in Fatah and everyone in the smaller radical nationalist and Islamist groups wants even more militancy and a longer war. Some of them attribute the problems to accepting any agreement with Israel in the first place; others believe armed struggle will force Israel to make a deal on Palestinian terms.
What many foreign observers have failed to understood is that for more than two years Arafat himself has been firmly in the radical camp. He has not acted like a man who wanted to use a bit of force to gain concessions, or provide an excuse for making a compromise peace agreement. He has returned to his traditional views some would argue he never left them, though he often behaved differently during the peace process regarding regaining all Palestine through armed struggle, whether it takes one stage or two to complete the process.
As numerous polls show, the Palestinian people are somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, they want Israel destroyed and applaud terrorism; on the other hand, they know the true costs of the current strategy and would like to get their own state and not have any Israeli troops around.
Although one should certainly not romanticize the masses or engage in wishful thinking, much of their dilemma has been bad leadership and extremist propaganda.
Changing these things would not bring a magical solution, but it would allow the beginning of some resolution.
By naming Abu Mazen prime minister, and with Abu Ala (as parliament speaker) supposedly his interim successor, Arafat has designated the relative moderates as the next leadership after he departs the scene. We are still waiting for Arafat to die, but we at least have some hope that his replacements will be better.
This does not mean these people will be able to hold onto the leadership or make peace with Israel. Arafat will undercut them and the radicals, including those in Fatah, will challenge them at every step. Since they lack control over the security apparatus, they will not be able to consolidate their authority or impose their will. Their following is limited and they have little influence on Palestinians elsewhere in the Middle East.
Moreover, they are men of Arafat's generation, whose post-Arafat time in power will not number many years.
Finally, Abu Mazen has an extremely powerful attachment to the "right of return" idea, which in itself would probably make it impossible for him to achieve a comprehensive solution with Israel.
But at least these men are more rational and less suicidal. They understand the concept of pragmatism even if they do not always practice it.The writer's next book Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, coauthored with Judith Colp Rubin, will be published in August.
©2003 - Jerusalem Post