The test ahead

The June 2005 Abbas-Sharon summit took place after several delays and with much prodding from Washington. Yet the summit had an air of deja vu, eliciting only limited interest in the media and having little significance.

Since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 many similar summits have been held, with identical dynamics. Again and again, exasperated Israelis have demanded that the Palestinians meet their obligations, particularly in combating terror, in order to be able to proceed with the peace process. The Palestinians, in turn, have told their interlocutors that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was too weak to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Palestinians have always demanded Israeli concessions to be able to show the people that the PA can deliver, thereby gaining strength to put their house in order. The Israelis have usually responded with a few gestures of debatable significance, which have been invariably termed by the PA as insufficient, thereby enabling the latter to ignore its security obligations.

The recent Abbas-Sharon meeting was no different than numerous previous summits between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon upbraided the Palestinian side for the increase in terrorist incidents despite the Palestinian ceasefire, and stated the obvious–that it is in the Palestinian interest to dismantle militias and put an end to the lack of law and order. As expected, President Mahmoud Abbas responded that the PA is weak, and suggested to Israel several courses of action to strengthen him and the fledgling PA. Israel is likely to accept some of the suggestions in order to avoid being blamed for the collapse of the Abbas regime, and will in all likelihood continue to complain.

Over the years, the Palestinians have perfected the nebech (weakling) strategy. In a world of power politics, Palestinian self-declared weakness elicited during the last decade remarkable results: Israeli territorial concessions and generous humanitarian assistance, tremendous international sympathy, many billions of dollars in foreign assistance to the PA, as well as a flow of NGO money to the Palestinian-ruled territories. In addition, most of the western world was willing to turn a blind eye to the emergence of an incredibly corrupt, authoritarian and inept Palestinian regime.

That regime was unwilling to exert its internal security forces (one of the highest ration of police personnel per capita in the world) to establish a monopoly over the use of force. This caused the PA to descend into anarchy, and facilitated relentless terror against Israelis. A corollary result of the PA failures was the ascendance of Hamas in Palestinian politics, which was moderated only by the influx of external support to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian economy.

Only the degeneration of the Arafat regime, and the events of 9/11 that rendered terrorism less acceptable, placed question marks on the Palestinian enterprise and its strategy of ineptitude. The PA had a chance to change its course of action when Arafat died and Abbas became his successor. But the nebech strategy was not abandoned.

Yet the recent summit may well signal that this strategy is losing some of its usefulness. In 2005, Israelis, Americans, and even other important members of the international community are less inclined to be impressed by Palestinian powerlessness. At least for a while, the Palestinian ability to perform has become particularly important for moving ahead in the peace process, due to the impending Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The goal of the summit was to enhance limited cooperation between the two sides on disengagement.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to the region to impress upon the Palestinians the need for a peaceful and orderly withdrawal from Gaza, and to push for coordination between the protagonists. The US is busy with Iraq and is concerned about the emergence of a nuclear Iran. Washington’s energies may suffice to deal also with Syria, but it has little desire to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The Egyptians are also involved in ensuring a smooth withdrawal. They are helping the PA primarily in order to prevent the possibility of Hamas taking over Gaza, on their border.

It is clear to all that the test of Abbas’ leadership and even of the future of the PA is the transfer of power in the Gaza Strip. In August the PA will acquire a piece of land, witness the dismantling of Israeli settlements, and take full control over Gaza. It will not have to give anything in return, apart from the expectation that Israel be allowed to complete the withdrawal without being harassed by Palestinian militias. Anything less than a clear demonstration that the PA’s forces are in control, by preventing looting and terrorist attacks, will be deemed a failure on the part of Abbas and the Palestinian political system.

Abbas runs out of maneuvering time on August 15, the day Israel starts disengagement. It remains to be seen whether the Palestinians will pass the test that lies ahead.