Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2005 - 4 January 2006
Issue No. 775
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sharon triumphant

2005 was the year Ariel Sharon swept all before him -- including Mahmoud Abbas, writes Graham Usher

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CHANGING ISRAEL: Amir speaking to supporters with a huge poster of Rabin in the background

Three months before the Israeli elections on 28 March 2006, Ariel Sharon stands as the undisputed master of his new Kadima Party, commanding what appears to be an unassailable lead in the polls. One month before the Palestinian parliamentary elections on 25 January 2006, Mahmoud Abbas stands at the head of a Fatah movement facing its worst schism in nearly 50 years, with no guarantee at all that it will remain the dominant force in Palestinian nationalism.

Those two realities summarise the cruel headline for 2005. The year amounted to a colossal success for Sharon and his solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a colossal failure for Abbas and his Fatah. It had begun so differently.

In January 2005, it was Sharon who was caught on the horns of a divided Likud Party, irreparably fractured by his decision to end the dream of "Greater Israel" by withdrawing Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank. Abbas was buoyed by a rare Palestinian unity, energised by Yasser Arafat's death and the hope that it would somehow unfreeze a political process consumed by four years of overpowering Israeli violence and directionless armed Palestinian revolt.

On 9 January, Abbas won a clear majority in the Palestinian presidential elections. One month later, he secured a "mutual", if unofficial, ceasefire between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit hosted by Egypt. It was consolidated on 17 March by the so-called Cairo Declaration: 13 Palestinian factions, including the non- PLO Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, agreed to maintain "an atmosphere of calm [ tahdiya ]" for the rest of 2005.

Between ceasefire and calm, a conference in London chaired by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and attended by 23 states generated plans, logistical support and cash "to build the capacities of a Palestinian state". Finally, on 24 February, a new Palestinian government was sworn in, consisting of 17 new "technocrats", but with Abbas loyalists holding the key portfolios, most notably Nasser Youssef at Interior.

These moves confirmed Abbas as the legitimate heir to Arafat. They also demonstrated the depth of domestic support behind his core policies of a ceasefire to end the armed Intifada; reform to rectify what had long become a dysfunctional Palestinian administration, and negotiations, preferably of the final status variety, to end the conflict.

Yet having secured his succession as Palestinian leader, Abbas failed dismally to carry out his policies. Instead he was faced by "a crisis of implementation in which decisions taken by Abbas are simply not observed within Fatah and the PA", admitted Ziad Abu Ayn, a local Fatah leader. Blocking change were those who had most to lose by it: Fatah's unelected Central Committee, various Al-Aqsa Martyrs' "brigades" in its pay, and an inert government bureaucracy entrenched by Arafat's system of patronage and patrimony.

Their obstruction was helped by Sharon's blunt refusal to return to meaningful political negotiations based on the roadmap, the keystone on which Abbas's other policies of reform and the ceasefire rested. Instead Sharon continued with the unilateralism embodied by his Gaza disengagement, a plan that relegated the PA to a junior partner at best, and an ostracised other at worst.

Abbas's sole political counter to this was the hope that the world -- and particularly the Americans -- would "re- engage", forcing Sharon to adhere to a peace plan he verbally espoused, but practically adjured. Despite two meetings with George Bush in May and again in October -- and several others with Condoleezza Rice -- Abbas's American dream went nowhere.

True, in November, Rice did intervene to force Israel to open Gaza's Rafah crossing into Egypt. The US also stayed Sharon's hand on certain of Israel's more egregious colonial ambitions. One was to define Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem "absentee property" on the grounds that their owners lived in an Israeli-designated West Bank. Another were the continuous attempts to commence construction of the E1 settlement plan in East Jerusalem, a project that once realised would effectively close the last urban space the Palestinians have for development in their putative capital.

But on the strategic issues of the West Bank wall, settlement expansion and closure policies in and around Jerusalem, neither the US nor the European Union acted against Israel. In December, the EU was so cowed by Israel's temper that it refused even to publish a report written by its own diplomats on Israel's de facto annexation of East Jerusalem. Rather the message Abbas received was that there would no pressure on Israel to do anything until the PA "earned the confidence of its neighbours [i.e. Israel] by rejecting and fighting terrorism", said Bush. In the new climate of Sharon's disengagement this meant governance in Gaza and an end to armed resistance in the West Bank. Abbas could deliver neither.

In the last 12 months Gaza has degenerated into a gangland in which rival factions within the PA bureaucracy and Fatah (and their allied militia and tribes) have fought for the spoils left by Israel's withdrawal. Abductions, assassinations (the most high profile being that of former PA security chief, Moussa Arafat, in September), assaults on public property as well as the sporadic sprays of mortars into Israel have generated disgust among Palestinians and collective reprisals from Israel, but with neither able to bring order. The nadir was reached in November, when rival Fatah militiamen stormed polling stations to deny or impose their colleagues' right to elect their parliamentary list through primaries.

Faced with violence and massive fraud, Abbas intervened, cancelling the elections in Gaza and some districts in the West Bank. In their stead he reverted to Arafat's preference for appointment, placing at the head of Fatah's overall list PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, the choice of Fatah's "old guard" Central Committee. This outraged Fatah's younger cadre, especially its imprisoned West Bank general secretary, Marwan Barghouti, who had romped home in primaries for Ramallah. On 15 December he put himself at the head of Fatah's "Future" list, openly challenging Abbas's list. "Future" has the support of such Fatah luminaries as Mohamed Dahlan in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank.

Unless young and old guards can be reconciled on one list the spectre looms of at least two Fatah movements running for parliament. The electoral consequence of that split has already been seen in last round of Palestinian local elections in December. Divided Fatah slates contested Nablus, Jenin and Al-Bireh municipalities in the West Bank. United Hamas lists won all three, and Nablus by a landslide. It is an outcome that could easily be repeated in the parliamentary elections.

Unlike Abbas, Ariel Sharon has projected leadership. He has also seen his decisions implemented, most notably his disengagement plan. In less than a week in August he watched as his army evacuated 25 settlements and 8,000 settlers from Gaza and the West Bank with the precision of a Swiss clock. Even more audaciously he has recast Israel's political system to bring it in line with his and Israel's new post- Oslo worldview, one dominated by what the Israeli analyst Haim Baram has dubbed the "nationalist centre": this is an Israeli consensus that is no longer averse to withdrawing from occupied territory but remains unconvinced there is a Palestinian leadership that can convert a withdrawal into a peace agreement. Like Sharon, it is unilateralist to the core.

Sharon has reshaped Israel's political map by abandoning old coalitions and forming new ones. The most public schism was with national religious Zionism, and its messianic settler vanguard, Gush Emumim. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Sharon had mobilised these zealots to "grab every hilltop" in pursuit of his grand scheme to colonise the choicest parts of the occupied territories. By 2004 the task had more or less been accomplished and the settler vanguard had become a burden, especially in expendable territories like the Gaza Strip. What Sharon also saw -- and the settler leaders did not -- was that they had also become politically isolated, save for the ultra-nationalists in Sharon's Likud Party.

Thus when Sharon finally moved against settlers in Gaza and the northern West Bank, there was no civil war, no violent resistance and not much of a protest. In fact the only victims were Palestinian, four of them citizens of Israel, shot dead in an effort to forestall the disengagement by what Sharon called "Jewish terrorists" in Israel and the West Bank. The much-vaunted "rift in the nation" turned out to be barely a scratch, at least as far as the vast majority of Jewish Israelis were concerned.

But Sharon's most daring move was to dissemble the political alignment he had forged in the 1970s, and which has ruled Israel intermittently ever since. As Israeli analyst, Peretz Kidron, has described, the coalition consisted of territorial nationalists like Menachem Begin's Herut Party, the Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) working class alienated by the racism of Israel's ruling Labour establishment, and religious parties long sidelined by the secularism of the same.

In November Sharon quite deliberately blew this coalition asunder by leaving Likud and forming the new Kadima Party. It proved a spectacularly successful gambit, placing Sharon not only at the centre of the Israeli political spectrum but as the pivot of any future ruling coalition. Drawing supporters from the "realist" wings of Likud and Labour, Kadima can easily reach out to the secular middle class represented by parties like Shinnui as well as to Mizrahi working class represented by religious movements like Shas. It has also cast Likud and Amir Peretz's Labour Party as "extremists", representing religious settlers in the first case, and "Arabs" and "leftists" in the second.

Barring Sharon's demise, Kadima will almost certainly form the centrepiece of the next coalition government in Israel, with Sharon as prime minister for the third consecutive time. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is nothing to suggest that his policies then will differ from those now. He will pay lip service to peace and the roadmap, while unilaterally determining Israel's eastern border courtesy of the wall, the settlement blocs and the annexation of Jerusalem. The only difference is that Sharon would then be the head of a coalition that supports this enterprise, as opposed to a Likud Party that, in its heart, did not, or at least not those parts that required relinquishing expendable land. Not since the days of David Ben-Gurion has one man so dominated Israeli politics.

This is the challenge the Palestinians must address when they go to the polls in January. Given Fatah's disintegration, they could not be in worst shape to do so. The fear is that the elections may degenerate into intra-factional violence, akin to that which accompanied the Fatah primaries. The hope is that out of Abbas's failure, a new national leadership can emerge united not only on policy, but also on strategy, and hopefully less dependent on the dubious favours of Washington and Brussels for its implementation. Elections alone are not a sufficient condition to realise the Palestinians' core aspirations of self-determination and authentic decolonisation. But they are a necessary one. As the last year has shown, the alternative is not only further disintegration and division, but defeat.

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