Beyond the Palestinian Optimism


By Danny Rubinstein

March 17, 2003

In keeping with its agenda, the Palestinian Authority's Legislative Council should be convening today in Ramallah to approve, on third and final reading, the law for appointing a prime minister. Immediately thereafter, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is expected to ask Abu Mazen to select the first cabinet he will head. This weekend, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that with the appointment of the Palestinian prime minister, he will send Israel and the Palestinians his "road map" plan, of which the most important provision is the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2005.

This, then, is the timetable for the forthcoming renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - welcomed by everyone. On Friday, Arafat discussed the issue on the phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair; U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has told Al-Jazeera Television that Abu Mazen will be welcomed at the White House; and senior officials in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have said that Bush's speech was an important step, with the same sentiments echoed by Palestinian spokesmen such as Saeb Erekat, Nabil Sha'ath and others.

However, behind the optimistic statements hides a less encouraging truth: Senior Palestinians admit that in public appearances, they have to express satisfaction at what is depicted as possible progress toward negotiations, at the end of which a Palestinian state will be established in three years time. On the other hand, it is difficult to find even a single Palestinian who actually believes this. Everyone knows that on the minds of the leaders of the United States, Europe, the Arab countries and the entire world is not the ever-increasing bloodshed on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but rather the preparations for the war on Iraq.

Bush's surprising speech on Friday about the road map was intended, according to many Palestinian and other commentators, as a means of somehow placating the European states and the Arab leaders, and telling them that the concentrated effort on the matter of Iraq has not caused the administration in Washington to forget the Palestinian issue. "The American road map leads to Baghdad - and not really to us," said the PA mouthpiece Al Hayat al Jedida.

The Palestinians are afraid the road map will meet the same fate as that of the other American initiatives of recent years (Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni) - namely, nothing will come of it because Israel will whittle away the discussions. The report that Israel has proposed 100 emendations to the road map has received prominent coverage in the Palestinian media. Arafat has also spoken scornfully about this.

The Palestinian street is busy with the killing spree and destruction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (14 people killed on Thursday and Friday, 26 houses demolished and many people wounded or arrested). The Palestinians don't want any discussions of the contents of the road map, only talks about its rapid implementation so as "to put an end to the war crimes that are being committed by Israel" (as stated in the decision of the Palestine Liberation Organization's steering committee at its meeting this week in Ramallah).

If there are people in Israel who think the war on Iraq will turn over a new leaf in the diplomatic configuration of the Middle East - perhaps like the 1991 Madrid conference that kicked off the peace process after the first Gulf War - among the Palestinians, the prevailing feeling is that the war in Iraq will lead to chaos throughout the region. There is concern for upheavals in the Arab regimes, riots and outburst of violence that will distract attention entirely away from what is happening in the territories. The fear is that this will be an auspicious opportunity for the right-wing Israeli government to considerably intensify its policy of punishment and the destruction of the entire fabric of life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, already under heavy stress.

In the course of this, the reinforcing of the Jewish settlements in the territories will continue, leaving - as many people, Israelis and Palestinians alike - no room for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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