July 23, 2003 - Who's in charge of the Palestinian leadership? Conventional wisdom has it that the man in charge is Mahmoud Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen, an apparent moderate who has brought credibility to the Palestinian side.
But Mahmoud Abbas may not have much real power. He does not have Yasser Arafat's popular support. And ever since Abbas was designated Palestinian Prime Minister, Afarat has been doing his best to undermine him. He attacked Abbas for failing to win sufficient concessions from Israel in response to the terrorists' limited cease-fire (even though Israel had withdrawn from Bethlehem and part of Gaza). In a move that shows Arafat's continuing influence, last week Abbas and Arafat formally agreed to share power. Abbas' authority will be subject to committees whose members include associates of Arafat.
A recent incident dramatically illustrates how power works in the Palestinian Authority. Last weekend Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Governor Haider Irsheid of Jenin and beat him severely, accusing him of collaborating with Israel's crackdown on terrorism. They freed him several hours later on the orders of Yasser Arafat. Zakariya Zubeidi, the Jenin leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, told reporters that they released him on Arafat's command. "We do not question the president's instructions," he said.
In spite of his release, Irsheid is finished as governor. ''They won - they have forced me to resign,'' he said while at home recovering from his wounds. ''I am exhausted. They beat me all over my body.''
It is no wonder that the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades want to eliminate Irsheid. He has reported that Arafat is providing financial and political support to terrorist groups, including the Brigades, who have refused to cooperate with the cease-fire. Not only are the Brigades the real power in Jenin, they have also launched a campaign of intimidation in Nablus, including kidnapping, extortion, car-torchings, and even murder. Irsheid told Arafat that it is wrong to make payments to these groups. He paid for his courage.
The terrorists carrying out this campaign of intimidation are members of Arafat's own Fatah organization. Yet incredibly, many claiming interest in a solution are still trying to keep Arafat active. Just two months ago French Foreign Minister Villepin met with Arafat in defiance of U.S. wishes, and French President Chirac still criticizes those who refuse to give Arafat credibility. "The attempts to marginalize Yasser Arafat are counter-productive," Villepin told reporters only this week. One may well wonder who really is working for peace.
Will Israel be negotiating with Abbas or with Arafat? Arafat has a long history of rejecting every opportunity for peace, and of supporting terrorism even while pretending to cooperate with the peace process. Arafat has no use either for Abbas or for the peace process, and those who continue to prop him up are prolonging the conflict. Abbas was appointed after it became clear that with Arafat at the helm the peace process is doomed. Israel and the U.S. had been hoping for a new start with a new partner. Who's in charge here?
Postscript (August 23, 2003): Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian minister of labor, said of the Americans and Israelis: "They convinced themselves in a very funny way, like children, that now we have a new Palestinian leadership. It's not a new leadership. Abu Mazen is No. 2, and he has been No. 2 as long as I can remember."
Agence France-Presse Staff. "French Foreign Minister Tells Israel to Drop Curbs on Arafat." New York Times, July 21, 2003.
Bennett, James. "Arafat and Abbas Agree on Roles in the Peace Effort." New York Times, July 15, 2003.
Bennett, James. "The Illusions of Progress." New York Times, August 23, 2003.
Majally, Nazir and Asharq Al-Awsat. "Jenin Governor Beaten in Public." Arab News, July 20, 2003.
Myre, Greg. "Kidnapping Episode Illustrates Strife Among Palestinian Factions." New York Times, July 19, 2003.
Radin, Charles A. and Sa'Id Ghazali. "Arafat is Said to Fund Truce Foes." Boston Globe, July 23, 2003.
Peace with Realism