ARLINGTON, Virginia — Yasser Arafat's death opens up an opportunity for peace in the Middle East. His failure to exploit a reluctant but promising offer from the Israelis at Camp David in July 2000 by continuing negotiations, his provocative role in the second intifada that started in September 2000, and his apparent refusal to swear off political violence made him an unacceptable interlocutor to the United States and Israel. Since he was therefore also unwilling to relinquish authority to an acceptable peacemaker, the post-intifada peace process was stillborn.
The challenge is now to ensure that a more earnest partner for peace can deliver. The odds-on choice is Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, the new head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He is a nationalist but a genuine moderate, and would have negotiated further at Camp David had it been up to him. With this opportunity, however, comes political instability among the Palestinians that stems from the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.
President George W. Bush has pledged that the United States will revitalize its efforts to broker a two-state settlement, but it needs to do more than that. The United States can further the peace process by helping the secular Palestinian leadership to reform the Palestinian Authority into both an energetic and efficient security organization and a politically respectable one. If it cannot do so, that leadership will lack bona fides as a negotiator as well as stability and continuity — both of which are essential to sustaining political movement towards a Palestinian state.
German sociologist Max Weber defined a state as a community that establishes a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Once the Palestinian Authority gains that monopoly, it will be able to quell internal subversion and terrorist violence against Israelis. At present, however, the PA is only one of several competitors.
On Nov. 16, Hamas, the largest and strongest of the militant Islamist Palestinian terrorist groups, announced that it would not participate in the Jan. 9 election for the new president of the PA, condemning the prospective election as "a continuation of Oslo." The smaller Islamic Jihad took the same stance. Furthermore, potentially violent factionalism within the PA itself threatens any prospective monopoly on legitimate force with warlordism and anarchy, and constitutes as big a problem as Hamas.
Before the PA can govern in an orderly fashion, its internal divisions need to be tamped down. Even more urgently, before the Israelis will consider a cease-fire and subsequent negotiations, Hamas and other militant groups must be reined in.
To garner the respect of the Palestinian people, the PA — not the United States or the Israelis — must be the primary agent in suppressing militant groups. The two moderate Palestinian governments tortuously formed last year were unable to wrest control of the agencies responsible for security from Arafat. This futility made them incapable of moving decisively against Hamas and other groups, whose mayhem Arafat regarded as a political asset, and prompted Abu Mazen to resign as prime minister.
Abu Mazen's vow to crack down on militants has more credibility now than it did then. Arafat's divide-and-rule approach is for the moment in abeyance. In addition, Israeli counter-terrorism measures like targeted killings, though they have been politically incendiary, have deprived Hamas of its most charismatic and electable leaders and weakened Hamas and Islamic Jihad's violent capabilities. To foster moderation, with U.S. encouragement Israel has relaxed its security posture. This may diminish Palestinian fears that Israel's Gaza pullout is a pretext for expanding and consolidating its presence in the West Bank and give Palestinians more latitude for compromise.
Privately, some Hamas leaders could now be more open to political participation — which may help explain the Israelis' release of one of Hamas's more moderate leadership figures, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, from prison shortly after the Nov. 16 announcement. At the prison gates, he announced that Hamas would consider participation in the January poll provided it comprehensively included not only the PA leadership but also positions in the Palestinian legislature and municipal council, where Hamas would be more likely to prevail.
Yet it is unlikely that such moves by individual figures also signal a broader inclination for militants to dismantle their armed capabilities voluntarily. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while expressing a wish for Palestinian unity, have ruled out a cease-fire unless Israel withdraws troops from the West Bank and Gaza, which is highly unlikely to happen. The militant groups themselves are split between moderates and hardliners, and there is no figure like Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army in evidence who could hold the hardliners in check, as Adams did in enforcing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Even if a cooperative spirit were to materialize, Hamas and Islamic Jihad's radical Islamist doctrine would always pose a residual risk that they would use any new Palestinian state as a platform to defeat their secular rivals and to continue attacks on Israel. This means that the United States cannot rely on enlisting militant leaders in any disarmament effort, and must enable and encourage the Palestinian Authority to do the job coercively.
With Arafat out of the picture, the United States now faces less resistance to equipping, training, advising and discreetly assisting Palestinian security forces. But it must avoid the pitfalls of the Oslo era. This time around, security interaction would have to be more broadly based and more principled than it was in the 1990s. Given the ubiquity of weapons and bomb-making materials in the West Bank and Gaza, it would have to include reasonably effective monitoring and regulation of small arms and heavier weapons.
Moreover, the United States would need to curtail PA practices that it was powerless to stop during the Oslo period. These include bribery, extortion and extra-judicial murder, as well as the coy but ineffective "revolving door" practice of detaining suspects one day and releasing them soon thereafter to intimidate the terrorists and placate Washington.
In addition to invigorating the PA's counter-terrorism capabilities, judicious outside involvement in PA security practices could help harmonize the disparate security services within the authority and minimize the possibility of warlordism.
The United States and the 25-nation European Union — which has substantially bankrolled the Palestinian Authority — would also have to renew broader pressure on the authority to eliminate Arafat-era corruption and better provide the social services that Hamas has stepped in to furnish. Doing so would dilute a major element of Hamas's grassroots appeal and draw a Palestinian silent majority dissatisfied with both a corrupt, feckless PA and extreme, politically unrealistic militant Islamist groups more decisively towards the PA.
Against the current backdrop of political turmoil among Palestinian factions, American attempts to condition the PA for disarmament and governance of a Palestinian state might seem a little like trying to paint a porch in a hurricane. But empowering the PA to pacify Palestinian territory and take care of the Palestinian people is a prerequisite to, rather than a consequence of, the PA's legitimacy and long-term viability in the eyes of both the Palestinian people and the Israelis. Disarmament and PA reform must be well under way before a state is established. Otherwise, the new state will be doomed to instability and potentially civil war.
© United Press International
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of World Peace Herald or United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
Steven Simon is a Senior Analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Jonathan Stevenson is Senior Fellow for Counter-terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 29, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.