Walker´s World: Cautious hopes of Israel´s Springtime (UPI) VIA-WASHINGTON TIMES) By Martin Walker JERUSALEM, Israel 01/27/05)
UPI} UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
UPI} UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL Articles-Index-Top
Jerusalem, Israel, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Across Israel, from the prime
minister´s office to the coffee bar by the military bunker atop the
Golan Heights, from the cafeteria in the Knesset, Israel´s
parliament, to university common rooms, the sense of hope is blooming
like the Spring. Israelis have learned, from bitter experience, that
all optimism must be cautious and ruthlessly conditional on the
avoidance of yet another terror attack, but this time the signs are
A lot of the credit goes to the newly elected president of the
Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is moving hard and fast to
clean up the squalid and corrupt image bequeathed by Yasser Arafat.
This week, he went to the PA TV station to tell them to stop
reporting everything he did with Soviet-style reverence. Cover the
news, he said; don´t make a cult of personality. And learn to compete
with al-Jazeera and the BBC.
The Abbas move that has most impressed Israeli officials, however,
came Tuesday night on the beachfront of the Gaza strip. Abbas sent PA
police and bulldozers to demolish ten newly built houses, and an
array of fast-food shacks that had been erected on PA-owned land
without building permits. The point is that the houses were built by
officials of Arafat´s old security forces, whose 12 separate
organizations are now being pruned into three by Abbas.
And Abbas has appointed Gen. Nasser Youssef, a professional policeman
and soldier rather than a politician, to run the A security service,
even though the militants of Hamas hate him for demolishing one of
the makeshift mosques they erected on PA land - again without a
There have been a lot of changes in the Gaza Strip and West Bank
since Abbas, often known by his nickname of Abu Mazen, took over.
Just ask Mouin Abu al-Eish, an ambulance driver in the Gaza Strip. He
earns $400 a month from the Ministry of Health and another $220 a
month from the al-Awda hospital. He also used to get an "Arafat
envelope" every few weeks, three crisp $50 bills straight from the PA
Arafat´s envelopes were a crucial feature of his power, a personal
patronage system based on cash, in which loyalists and influential or
useful people -- or some just doing a good job, like the ambulance
driver -- were paid directly from Arafat in transactions that never
went though the books. Half of the $8 billion in international aid
that went to the PA after the Oslo accords in 1993 has never been
accounted for - and a lot of its went into Arafat´s envelopes. Abbas
has now stopped this system and installed orthodox accounting
What probably matters most is the way that Abbas has been asserting
his authority over the security system, and making the PA police and
security forces deploy to prevent more rocket attacks against Israel
from the Gaza strip. That is what Ariel Sharon´s government said it
wanted, and now that Abbas has started to deliver, the government has
started to respond. They have dropped Sharon´s ban on direct talks
with the PA, and the vice-primer Shimon Peres has already met Saab
Erekat, PA negotiations minister, and a meeting between Abbas and
Sharon is now being tentatively arranged.
The question now is whether Abbas can deliver a cease-fire that
includes the militants like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that
until recently seemed more likely to launch a civil war with the PA
for dominance within the Palestinian community. The signs are
hopeful, in part because of war weariness by the decimated Hamas
organization in Gaza, where the local leader Mahmoud al-Zahar now
says the future for Hamas must lie through competing in PA elections.
Above all, Hamas has now reportedly accepted (in talks with Abbas)
the principle of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with
its capital in Jerusalem, as the basis for negotiations with Israel.
In return, Abbas has agreed to bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad into
a "supreme diplomatic authority" which will review any deal with the
Israelis. Arafat always refused to dilute the PLO´s authority in this
way. But the price may be worth paying; this is the first time Hamas
has abandoned its traditional position that the whole of Israel
is "waqf´ land, a Muslim religious trust that can never be given away
and must therefore be wholly liberated.
These are dramatic changes, and only part of them can be attributed
to the death of Arafat and the new broom of Mahmoud Abbas, a reformer
who is starting to inspire the same kind of excitement even among
skeptical Israelis that Mikhail Gorbachev stirred with his talks of
glasnost and perestroika in the old Soviet Union, 20 years ago.
But something else was required to give Abbas this space to maneuver.
And for all its controversy and blunt ugliness, the fact is that the
Israeli security fence and wall has done its job of ending, or at
least massively reducing, the grim toll of the Palestinian suicide
bombers. Israeli nerves have been calmed, and the demands for massive
and brutal retaliation have been muted.
The other important factor, too little regarded outside Israel, is
Ariel Sharon´s remarkable decision to withdraw unilaterally from the
Gaza Strip and, at least initially, from four "illegal" settlements
in the West Bank. Sharon, once the hero of Israel´s settlers, is now
the villain and the betrayer, and daily demonstrations outside the
Knesset curse his name. There is no secret that it was the
Palestinian demographic threat that convinced Sharon, the prospect of
being so outbred by the fertile Palestinians that the Jews would
become a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the
Whatever the motive, Sharon is firm that there will be an Israeli
withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer, with the removal - by
force if necessary - of some 8,000 Jewish settlers.
Secret "proximity" talks have been under way at the Israeli Foreign
Ministry, in which Israeli and Palestinian officials meet separately
with World Bank officials to hammer out arrangement for property
transfer, bank payments, transport links and communications.
The legitimate and elected leader of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas,
will have a tract of land and more than a million Palestinians to
rule. The signs are that by then, the Israeli Army will have handed
over security authority to the PA for some of the West Bank cities.
And then comes the elections for the Palestinian parliament, which
Hamas is to contest.
This may not mean that swords are being hammered into plowshares, but
does suggest that terrorists are being transformed into politicians,
just as Israeli hard-liner Ariel Sharon is being transformed into the
man who withdraws from Gaza. If it took Nixon to go to China, maybe
it takes Sharon to be a peacemaker.
Springtime is coming in the Middle East, as fragile and maybe as
illusory as the dusting of green shoots that one sees on the tawny,
arid slopes of the Judaean hills outside Jerusalem. The surprise is
that the green shoots emerge at all. (Copyright 2005 United Press
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY