Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 November 2004
Issue No. 715
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

New ME realities

A combination of critical events makes the Middle East more vulnerable than ever. Mohamed Sid-Ahmed comments

Regardless of how Arafat's health crisis plays out, of who wins the US presidential election or of whether Sharon succeeds in pushing ahead with his plan to pull settlers out of Gaza in the face of strong opposition from various Israeli political groupings now coalescing against him, what is certain is that great changes are underway in the Middle East. Unfolding at an accelerated pace, they have not yet reached their final configuration. But what is also certain is that things will not go back to what they previously were and that the region is on the verge of altogether new realities.

As far as the Palestinian leadership is concerned, all attempts to replace Arafat with another leader have so far been unsuccessful. He did not surrender any of his prerogatives before leaving Ramallah for Paris, but took advantage of the outpouring of grief in the Palestinian street to heal the breach in Palestinian ranks. He appointed former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas secretary-general of the PLO, while Ahmed Qurei will remain as prime minister. But during their respective premierships, neither man succeeded in achieving the desired results. Can their performance improve under a collective leadership, and in the absence of Arafat?

With regard to the American presidency, this article was written just before the announcement of the results -- assuming they will be announced on the morrow of the ballot. Given the ferocity of the struggle for the presidency, the tight race and the armies of lawyers already standing by to challenge the results, it is unlikely that either candidate will receive a clear mandate and we might well see a replay of the 2000 presidential election, when the final results were announced five weeks after the election.

As to Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan, despite imposing his will on his opponents within the Likud ruling coalition and having the plan approved in the Knesset by a comfortable majority (67 to 45), the future of the Sharon government remains uncertain. A number of rebel ministers from Sharon's own Likud Party, led by Benyamin Netanyahu, are threatening to resign unless he calls a national referendum within two weeks. Sharon is opposed to the idea of a referendum and categorically refuses to be subjected to any ultimatum, even if this brings about the downfall of his government and the holding of early elections.

It is thus clear that all the protagonists in the Middle East are now facing a totally different situation. The change has occurred in an unexpected manner, with no preparation beforehand from any of the concerned parties.

To begin with, there are the imponderables related to the US presidential election. Who will be America's next president, Bush or Kerry? With the campaign focussing on the war in Iraq, the American economy, health care and jobs, neither candidate addressed the issue of Palestine nor indicated what his policy towards Israel would be. Democratic candidate Kerry enjoys the traditional support of America's Jewish community for the Democratic Party. But Bush succeeded in winning over more Jewish support than any other Republican president, thanks largely to the evangelical groups in America who share many core beliefs with Zionism.

Then there are two opposite principles that the Arab parties can invoke to define their position. There is first the principle to which the PLO has adhered since the 1970s, which is not to refuse recovering any occupied Arab territory that Israel accepts to withdraw from, whatever its reasons for doing so. The second principle is to ensure that evacuation is genuine, not illusory, symbolic or incomplete. An example of a withdrawal that is not genuine is the evacuation of land without relinquishing control over sea and airspace or of dismantling settlements but not the security fence that Sharon insists is necessary for Israel's security.

Should Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza be regarded as genuine evacuation or as a move designed to further consolidate the Israeli occupation? This issue has been the subject of heated debate among Israeli Arabs. A substantial majority of Arab Knesset members consider that Israel's unilateral disengagement will consolidate occupation. After all, Sharon himself admitted that one of the intentions of the plan "is to strengthen Israel's grip over the land that is crucial to our existence" -- namely, parts of the West Bank. Only Abdul-Malek Dahamsha and his fellow member of the "Arab Unified List" (AUL) voted in the Knesset for Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan. The "National Democratic Rally" (NDR), led by Azmy Bishara, announced its opposition to the plan, as did the "Front of Peace and Equality" (FPE, formerly, the Communist Party), represented by two members in the Knesset, as well as the "Arab Movement for Change" (AMC), represented by Ahmed Tibi (Arafat's adviser). According to press reports, Labour Party leader Shimon Peres is holding talks with FPE and AMC Knesset members to persuade them to support the Sharon plan.

The Islamic Movement (IM) leader Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour announced his support for the plan on the grounds that no Arab can oppose an Israeli pullout. Sheikh Hashem Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Umm Al-Fahm municipality, said that the restoration of any inch of occupied territory is "a plus for the Palestinian people". The NDR said the reason it opposed the Sharon plan was because it is dictated by long-term security considerations aimed at making the Israeli occupation easier to manage. It also facilitates the siege of Gaza by ground, air and see, and guarantees Israel's ability to continue its incursions and raids into Gaza. Moreover, a coalition between Sharon and Peres dispenses with the need to open up to the Geneva Accord and to build relations with the supporters of the Beilin/ Abed Rabbo document.

For Sharon, the withdrawal from Gaza is the last "voluntary" Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land. His unilateral disengagement plan is a radical departure from the famous Likud slogan that sums up its attitude to the return of Palestinian territory: "Not one inch!" Sharon himself was always particularly hawkish on the issue of giving up any of the Palestinian territories, and it was the Palestinians who pressed for an Israeli pullout as the first step in a succession of pullouts. It is important to realise that the disengagement from Gaza does not represent a defeat for Sharon, but a step he embarked on in the belief that it constitutes the basis of what he considers an optimal solution.

Moreover, it creates an opportunity for demanding still more. Palestinian concessions in exchange for any further pullouts.

In the light of the present disarray in Arab ranks, it is not easy to imagine the Arabs agreeing on what would constitute the basis of an optimal solution from their perspective, especially in view of the two apparently contradictory principles they can invoke to justify contradictory approaches to the issue: one, to welcome the withdrawal, engage in negotiations to improve its conditions and seize every opportunity available in this respect; and two, not to accept the withdrawal along the lines Sharon proposes, on the grounds that it is not a genuine evacuation.

Nevertheless, the Arabs cannot be said to have no cards whatsoever. For example, they can highlight the contradictions between Sharon's conditions and what is stipulated in the roadmap. The roadmap assumes evacuation as an agreement between two contractual parties, not as one dictating conditions to the other, and is regarded as the crowning point of all previous negotiations, not as their negation.

We must also be aware that inside Likud a real conflict of interests is underway. Its essence is that the present Israeli government refuses in principle to accept the idea of a Palestinian state, despite declarations to the contrary.

We must take advantage of the contradictions inside Likud, which are reminiscent of the conflict between the Israeli far-right and the other component elements of the Israeli political spectrum in the wake of Israel's signing of the Oslo Accords and of which Rabin was a victim. Now, with Bush openly expressing his hesitation, if not his renouncement, of the idea of a Palestinian state, especially if Bush is re-elected, and in the absence of Arafat, the prospects of such a state ever materialising threaten to disappear altogether.

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