Three Men in a Boat

It is a hot summer day in the Holy Land. Three men are looking out their windows. What do they see? What might they be thinking?



As he approaches the twilight of his political career, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, contemplates his one last remaining task. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of Israel’s long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a unified Palestinian national movement. He feels he is closer than ever to achieving his goal. The Palestinian polity is beginning to disintegrate. A generation of Palestinian leaders has been killed or imprisoned. Step by step, Palestinians will have to begin thinking of themselves not as Palestinians but as Gazans or West Bankers, Nabulsis or Hebronites, insiders or outsiders. This conflict is all about territory, and Palestinian territory is being carved up; it is about politics and political representation as well, and local Palestinian fiefdoms are emerging. A new reality is taking shape.

Facts on the ground,” the world euphemistically calls them: settlements, bypass roads, access routes, the separation wall. Together they are carving out isolated Palestinian cantons, creating an entity that they will be free, if they so want, to designate as a state. Chaos is the harbinger of triumph. Soon, if the cards are played meticulously, patiently, and well, Sharon’s legacy to the future will be much like the past: a heterogeneous, scattered, divided Palestinian polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past four decades by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The goal is almost reached, but not yet, and two principal obstacles remain. The first is Yasser Arafat. To Sharon, Arafat personifies all that he has vowed to suppress: a militant nationalism opposed to the Zionist project, implacable hostility toward the state of Israel, violence, terror, and, until recently, legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The second is Abu Mazen. Arafat aside, Sharon sees Abu Mazen as the Last Palestinian, the final leader of a unified national movement, the man potentially capable of holding the national movement together. Abu Mazen is needed to eclipse Arafat. But Abu Mazen’s ultimate failure is equally required for Sharon’s goal to be fulfilled. Let Abu Mazen succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada, and achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only so far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu Mazen’s success could bring him strength, and his strength would revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise was meant to thwart. Within those circumscribed political possibilities, Sharon views Abu Mazen’s fate as a win-win proposition: should he succeed in ending the military confrontation, the Israeli prime minister will take the credit; should he fail, the Palestinians will take the blame.

Sharon worries that so many of his fellow Israelis misunderstand the nature of this fight. And so they underestimate it. It is one national movement against another, and the two cannot both survive intact. For him the Palestinian national movement presents an existential threat to the State of Israel because it can translate both demographic growth and violent confrontation into longer-term political weapons. The 1948 war of independence goes on, with this its final battle, the one that will seal the fate of Israel for generations to come. He is sure he knows the Palestinians—knows how they think; knows how they operate—because, in a way, they are his mirror image, doing what he is doing and has been doing all his life. In this, at least, they share the vision of a brutal combat between two national movements of which only one can emerge unified and victorious. Sharon has little confidence in those who surround or would succeed him. The next generation of Israelis, impatient, weak, spoiled, hedonistic, and restless, doesn’t have what it takes yet to prevail in this struggle, may not ever have it. He does.

And how well his plan seems to be working. Next to him, he figures, previous Israeli prime ministers look like amateurs, resisting US and domestic pressures when accommodation was in order, giving in when adaptation was at hand, too rigid and too flexible at the same time. Once branded both an Israeli and an international pariah for his history, his actions in Lebanon and his role in the massacres committed in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, he is now viewed as belonging to the mainstream of Israeli politics. The world might object to his resort to brutal military tactics, to extra-judicial killings, with scores of civilian casualties. Still, he is accepted and respected, neither boycotted nor shunned. For all the sympathy of many for the Palestinians it is Arafat they are being pressed to break with, not him. He is not the aggressor; he is Israel’s protector in the international war against terrorism.

At home, he enjoys a political security unprecedented in recent Israeli history. With a third of the parliament’s members at his side, he governs at the head of a right-wing coalition. Undermined by the intifada and the collapse of the peace process, lacking both message and messenger, the Left can do little more than wait on the sidelines, voiceless, leaderless, divided, and adrift. The only vocal opposition comes from the Right, which suits him more than it threatens. To Americans pushing for greater concessions, he can point to the Right’s strident protests against those he already has made, evidence of both his political courage and the political constraints on his policies. To the Right he can point to the ever-beckoning Left, who, at a moment’s notice, would likely come to his rescue to form an alternative governing coalition.

Sharon promised peace and security. He has brought neither, and still the Israeli public, convinced of the lack of a credible alternative, gives him broad support. He has outmaneuvered opponents Left and Right, cutting them down to size. Age alone can stop him now.

Further afield, the regional and international landscape has been changed in ways gratifying to him. Saddam’s regime has been toppled. Syria’s leaders appear more concerned with survival than with confrontation. Iran too is feeling pressure from the US. Peace treaties with Cairo and Amman have survived waves of Israeli military attacks against the Palestinians, heavy civilian casualties, the end of Oslo, and Arafat’s confinement. This is no time to worry about a regional military threat to Israel.

The crowning achievement is his relationship with the US and with President Bush in particular. Some feared (or hoped) that Sharon’s handling of his relations with the administration would be his undoing; it has proved to be his strength. In the past he had needlessly alienated and provoked his US ally. He sees the US better now. He can pursue his main longer-term objectives while accommodating Bush’s needs. From Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir he has learned the two core principles of his policy: hit the Arabs (here, the Palestinians) hard and keep the Americans happy.

Around him, some of his more ideological and rigid partners worry openly about the implementation of the US-sponsored roadmap for peace and the prospect of a Palestinian state. How shortsighted their view, how devoid of imagination. It is not outright annexation of the Palestinians that ought to be the goal, or their impoverishment. Sharon sees all too well the risks inherent in both. Palestinians are not the enemy; Palestinian nationalism is. In the longer run, annexation will mean either apartheid or the end of the Jewish character of the state. The continued impoverishment of the Palestinians will mean constant resentment and potential violence. A mini-Palestinian state—defined as he, Sharon, would define it, limited as he would limit it, hardly a sovereign state and barely viable, without links to the outside world—is a gift to Israel, and not to the Palestinians. It is a ready-made answer to Israel’s dilemmas, resolving its demographic problem, maintaining its security, thwarting the reemergence of a national Palestinian movement, and, above all, turning an emotional national struggle into a routine border dispute. This is why statehood, for which the Palestinians have fought for so long and which Israel has resisted so fiercely, ironically has now become an Israeli interest and a Palestinian fear.

Sharon has evoked a long-term interim arrangement with the Palestinians; the “roadmap” talks of a Palestinian state with provisional borders that should be the prelude to a final agreement. One way—the wrong way—would be to simply resist the roadmap. In Sharon’s world, the better way is to mold the provisional borders into a long-term interim arrangement, always preserving Israel’s mastery—by dragging the process out, forever postponing the prospect of a final deal, and by continuing to build settlements, only this time under the cover of a recognized Palestinian state.

Not that all before him is clear or smooth. There are potential deep problems ahead. Sharon came into office without being particularly sensitive to the state of the economy; but he has come to see that others in the country are, and that the continuing lack of security and political deadlock with the Palestinians are taking their toll. With the Iraq war over, adjustments have to be made; some form of political deal will have to be pursued. He knows too that Israeli public opinion is fickle, susceptible to short-term pain and short-lived hopes; he has both suffered and benefited from these in the past.

Sharon has come to know the US President as well as he could, but to him, as to most others, Bush remains something of a mystery, inattentive to detail, yet taken with grandiose ideas and stubborn in pursuing their realization. Such spurts of zeal are jarring to the deliberate, focused, painstaking Israeli leader. He may one day face unexpected pressure from Washington of a type and with an aim that he is unsure of. Tactics will have to be used to take care of that, and what tactics cannot accomplish will have to be done through the passage of time. Sharon can procrastinate and, if it is truly needed—but only if it is truly needed—make use of the assets he enjoys in domestic US opinion so as to keep the President from demanding too much.

He has stocked up in anticipation of such uncertainties. Over the last two and a half years, he has accumulated a heavy load of tangible political assets. Some were meant to be held on to. Others were meant to be spent. There are Palestinian prisoners taken only to be released, territory that Israel occupied with an eye to later withdrawals, settlements—such as the barely inhabited outposts recently dismantled—that are established only to be subsequently removed. He has agreed to political plans, calculating that they are not likely to be carried out. Such moves have been made at a cost, but that cost is part of the game of putting the ball back in the Palestinians’ court, gaining time, all the while protecting the supremacy he really cares about.

Yielding what you previously took brings you to where you once were, but a new precedent has been set with the taking; accolades for the apparent concessions come from abroad and, at home, the catcalls that come from the Right are few and bearable. The first time the Israeli army entered Gaza, there was a US outcry and troops were rapidly withdrawn. By now, some two years later, it is the price of withdrawal rather than the principle of entry that is being negotiated. It takes patience and flexibility, a mastery of time and a solid understanding of what counts and what does not. Sharon trusts that he has more of each than anyone else.

Some lament that Sharon has not changed. Others protest that he has changed too much. How odd, pointless, and tiresome this debate must sound to him. Long experience of highs and lows has taught him an indelible lesson: that nothing protects one from change so much as change itself. Politics is an affair of constant fine-tuning, a careful weighing of Israeli public opinion, economic realities, and the interests of the US, with its sudden and limited attention span. Constraints are just obstacles that one must bypass in order to better reach one’s true objective. The map of a mini-Palestinian state that he proudly claims he accepts today, surrounded and perforated by Israeli territory, is the same one he has had in his pocket for the past twenty years. If calling it a state is the price to be paid, so be it. It is one he has come to accept willingly long before so many others on his right as well as on his left. Some might panic and some might sweat. Not he—his eyes are continually set on the ultimate goal, as he coolly, stubbornly, implacably heads toward it.



He is holed up in a largely destroyed building, under perpetual Israeli surveillance, marginalized, shunned, and liable at any moment to be expelled or worse; but for Arafat the landscape is familiar, at once comforting and comfortable. He has seen it all before; it is this, not a red-carpet welcome at the White House, that defines the world as he knows it. Many times in the past his enemies have confronted him. Still, he is there. Palestinians have complained about him. In the end, they have come back to the fold. He was never a man for physical comfort; that too has not changed. Sharon is confronting him. But when has he not? They say that this time it is different: rarely have so many tried so hard to dislodge him from power. How little they know, he feels: you cannot remove power from him since power will move where he does, since power is where he is. Go to the muqata, his headquarters, and the place where he now spends every hour of his day. Run-down, decrepit as it is, who can deny that it retains the unmistakable aura of power?

Nothing large or small, he knows, takes place without his ultimate approval, his personal signature. The prime minister was named as a result of international pressure, but all the pressure was directed at him, for who else mattered? Security officials await his nod, the demands for a cease-fire with Hamas need his approval, negotiations with Israel his sign-off. A word from him defines who is a traitor in Palestinian eyes, another leads to political redemption. Palestinian politics are a curious thing, but he is confident he has mastered them better than anyone else.

Where he is, so too will be the center of gravity of Palestinian politics. As some Palestinian groups move to the periphery, others move to the center in an endless balancing act in which he remains the pivot. Wander too far from his orbit, and see how power escapes you. Today, there are those who seek to push Arafat outside the governing circles of the Palestinian Authority. So be it. He sees himself returning to the Palestinian political scene as the head of a more powerful, and larger, coalition including the majority of his own Fatah organization, secular radical Palestinian groups, independent personalities, most of the Palestinian diaspora, and, a novel acquisition, Islamist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All of them in one way or another feel alienated from the new PA government, fearful of its direction, and genuinely loyal to the old leader or opportunistically coalescing around him, confident that he will protect them and not betray them, convinced that he is the authentic leader of Palestine. Whatever he may have lost by not formally heading the PA council of ministers, he is hoping to gain even more by being outside it.

Ask him, and he will say it is not because of money—though that always helps—or because of weapons—though they too can lend a crucial hand. If, in the end, all will return to him, it is through the natural and inescapable dynamics of Palestinian politics. Ultimately, this will happen not so much because of who he is as because of what he has spent a lifetime becoming—the embodiment of Palestine. In his own eyes, Arafat matters insofar as he is the representative of the Palestinian people, the product far more than the shaper of Palestine’s complex politics—without a state, with constituencies scattered around the world, and with violent organizations mingling with political ones.

He knows what some think: that he cannot lead, that he merely follows his people. How wrong, in his mind. He can lead, but only by being at all times in tune with them. Intuitively aware of Palestine’s political boundaries, he will never take a step that risks encouraging an effective majority against him, and so he will act only with the support of mobilized constituencies. He will point to the Oslo accords where he carried his people along despite their initial and overwhelming skepticism. Not in a foolhardy way, not in a manner that from the start would have doomed a strategic choice he was convinced would serve the Palestinian cause. But rather, once the accords had been signed, by slowly and meticulously building up a political constituency capable of overcoming popular disbelief and of bringing to his side a critical mass of his people.

Of all his fears, none is greater than that of being out of touch with his people, of, in his own words, becoming either a Karzai, viewed as imposed on Afghanistan from the outside, or a Lahd, the former head of the South Lebanon Army, viewed as an Israeli stooge. If he sticks to who he is, he feels, the world will go around in circles until it ends precisely where it began: with Arafat on one side and Sharon on the other.

Around him much has been going on—from the launching of the roadmap for peace to the naming of a Palestinian prime minister and the conclusion of a Palestinian cease-fire, from the dismantling of a few settlement outposts to reform of Palestinian institutions. How little it all matters to him. Others consider these events politics. He considers them to be mere side-shows for which he has little patience, frivolities of at best uncertain interest, distractions from what ought to be the exclusive focus—how to maximize the strength of the Palestinian people, which he equates with the strength of the nationalist cause, which he equates with his own. Others measure the usefulness of a Palestinian cease-fire, of a limited security deal with Israel, of the roadmap according to whether the outcome will invigorate a new peace process. Not he. The present moment is not about the peace process for he is convinced that nothing of use can be achieved by it. It is about the power relationships by which all that matters will be decided. And so he measures their usefulness by deciding who will emerge stronger and who weaker.

As he looks at the present situation, he is aware of the strains Palestinians are under, of the internal and external pressures to end the intifada and the emphasis on improving the Palestinians’ living conditions. But the fight, for him, is about showing political determination to reach the ultimate political objective, not about seeking material well-being as such. A flawed deal was dangled before him at Camp David, with hopes of enticing him with promises of large amounts of economic aid and the lure of his becoming an established head of state, with prestige, wealth, and the company of the powerful. When he could not see the deal and said no to all that, choosing instead the life of the rebel, he felt at one with his people; and they reciprocated in kind.

Besides, from his vantage point the view is not all bleak: although he lives in virtual detention, his constituency and his legitimacy have been strengthened; Israel still lacks security; its economy is in shambles; and immigration to Israel is plummeting. Then there are the achievements: the world, many Israelis included, increasingly accepts the need for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, for the dismantling of settlements, for Jerusalem’s division into two capitals; meanwhile, pressure keeps growing in favor of an international intervention. Palestinians are hurting but so too are Israelis. Only when they fully measure the cost of confrontation will Israelis fully appreciate the benefits of a true two-state solution in which Palestinians recover their lost land. The United States, Arab regimes, and Europeans can clamor all they want for an end to the violence, but since when have they acted in the Palestinians’ interest, when was the last time they took a risk on the Palestinians’ behalf? Theirs is a story of betrayal that has come in all shades at all times. All may not be as it ought to, but under these conditions why speak of a Palestinian disaster?

When he looks at Abu Mazen, he sees his companion of many years, there at the beginning and there at every major turn, ultimately loyal but not always blindly by his side, one of the very few who never plotted against him and never dreamed of doing so, insufficiently seasoned in the raw games of power, too upright for the region’s dirty deeds. Abu Mazen has become both the instrument others are seeking to use to marginalize Arafat and also a possible means to his political redemption. As with so many other matters, Arafat will seek to make do. He will help his prime minister one day to show that he can save him and undercut him the next, to remind him who is boss. And he will take solace in the fact that Abu Mazen in power means that Arafat’s is no longer the sole address for recrimination; he can point to someone else when things do not work as they should. A two-headed rule has its advantages. For Arafat, it can mean just as much power and far less responsibility.

There are darker moments, when the burden of the siege and the long isolation weigh heaviest. Clarity and confidence grow fainter. He suspects that Abu Mazen might be used as part of the conspiracy against him. He questions whether he will ever regain the trust of the United States, the country he courted for so long and on which he depended so much. He wonders whether this will be his last stand. At such times, anger takes hold.

People wonder how Arafat makes decisions, what his longer-range strategy is, how he plans to get where he wants to be. All of which must thoroughly mystify him. There is no decision-making as we know it, no grand strategy, not even a plan. For Arafat what counts is political intuition in the here and now. Political life is not about methodically determining how to get from one place to another; it is about assessing the situation one faces at the moment and figuring out how to emerge from it, at worst intact, at best strengthened. He will adapt to situations rather than shape them, react to events rather than preempt them. The surface conditions of his behavior conceal his own peculiar consistency. And survival, as always, will come first.

He hears people blaming him for launching the intifada, encouraging the violence, failing to step in. What do they know? Violence as he sees it is not something he ignites; it is something that happens when conditions permit and that he may, or may not, try to stop. Decisions are made through an informal, implicit process. He is simply their best interpreter and executor, acting on behalf of a broad consensus among the many political constituencies, weighing as they do the political cost of tolerating violence against the political cost of stopping it. But there is in this nothing special about violence; in his eyes it is merely one instrument among many at the Palestinians’ disposal, not more or less legitimate, and certainly not less legitimate than those deployed by Israel.

Hypocrites all, he thinks, who denounce the Palestinians’ resort to violence when their accusers have done the same, and on a far larger scale—Americans and Israelis first and foremost. Hypocrites, who invoke democracy’s name to unseat him when no one in the Arab world enjoys the popular mandate he has been given. They brand him an extremist when he has always been at the forefront of those arguing for better relations with the US and for engagement with the Israelis. They excoriate him for equivocating over President Clinton’s proposed peace deal in 2000 when Sharon has been excused for rejecting it outright. They seek to export Western institutions, and go on about reform, accountability, representative govern-ment, when none of this has anything to do with the rights of his people, with their struggle and legitimate cause. But this, too, he is confident, shall pass. Everything will revert to where it was. Everything will come back to him.


Abu Mazen

He has spent a lifetime in politics craving neither the limelight nor paramount political responsibility. Yet as he sits in his office as the Palestinian Authority’s first prime minister, Abu Mazen finds himself saddled with both. He is the public face of the government, the man upon whom so many pin their hopes and toward whom even more stand ready to direct their resentment. Once eager to escape political conflict, he finds himself in the midst of a perpetual political storm.

He did not seek the position, nor did he plan for it. It sought him and, if he sits where he sits now, he does so far more out of a sense of obligation than of personal ambition. But the sense of obligation has seized him, and today’s Abu Mazen is not yesterday’s. His determination, the very sound of his voice—once a hardly distinguishable murmur—are signs of this.

He looks around him and sees Palestinian land thoroughly reoccupied by Israel, the Palestinian Authority destroyed, widespread economic distress, and political mayhem. Practically anyone can acquire a gun and claim to make policy by showing it off. This is not resistance; it is anarchy and of the worst sort because it is readily exploited by the Palestinians’ foes. All of this, too, is happening without the world’s lifting a finger, with the Israeli peace camp silent, with the Arabs indifferent. In the court of international official opinion, the Palestinians have lost the moral high ground so patiently acquired over the years.

Arafat cannot be held wholly responsible but, for his erstwhile deputy, neither can he wholly escape blame. The last two and a half years, he is convinced, have been disastrous for the Palestinians, and Arafat, who, better than anyone else, could have brought the disaster to an end, chose instead not to exercise his full authority. There was nothing new about Arafat’s behavior; Abu Mazen was familiar with it as much as he was familiar with the man himself. Only this time, the result was an unmitigated catastrophe because it violated so many of Abu Mazen’s cardinal rules: do not confront Israel with violence but deal with it through negotiations; maintain bridges with the Israeli public; do not dissipate the Palestinians’ international legitimacy.

Violence, in his mind, always has been at best futile, at worst counterproductive. Today, it has backfired, uniting Israeli society against the Palestinians, silencing the Israeli Left, pushing the US further to Israel’s side, and exposing Palestinians to unprecedented assault from Israel. Israel has its weaknesses, he believes, but they are not of a military sort. Rather, they lie in the country’s internal contradictions and in the contradictions inherent in its relations with the United States. Negotiations and diplomacy will exacerbate and expose both, driving a wedge within Israel and between Jerusalem and Washington.

By playing the game right, stopping the military uprising, and resuming peaceful negotiations, Abu Mazen hopes, Palestinians will be in a win-win situation. Sharon will either agree to implement what is immediately demanded of him (withdrawal from recently reoccupied Palestinian territories, a settlement freeze, an end to military attacks)—and the Palestinian people will enjoy tangible benefits. Or he will not—and his intentions will be exposed, subjecting him to both US and domestic Israeli pressure.

Palestinian violence, by contrast, obscures these contradictions, spares the Israeli government the need to make a genuine choice and the US administration the challenge to live up to its declared commitments, and blurs the moral clarity of the conflict to the rest of the world, all without even the hope of prevailing militarily.

Once Palestinians have fulfilled their share of the bargain by ending the violence, cracks will emerge in Israel’s united front and, with President Bush’s credibility on the line, pressure will grow for Washington to intervene. To rely on Israel’s self-doubt and America’s self-interest, Abu Mazen knows, involves something of a leap of faith. It requires proving one’s peace credentials by acceding to virtually all US demands, however unfair they may seem, and stopping the violence before receiving any tangible political returns. He knows what others will say: that a return to Palestinian peacefulness will be seen as Sharon’s triumph; that as Palestinian violence comes to an end so too will pressures on Israel to make concessions; that he is pushing for unilateral Palestinian disarmament; that Washington will never truly force Israel’s hand; and that the bar of Palestinian obligations will continue to rise. But Abu Mazen’s is a choice by default, for he sees no other realistic alternative to the worsening of the continuing calamity since the fall of 2000, with no Israeli inhibitions and no American constraints.

In this sense, Abu Mazen is a man with goals both ambitious and modest. He aims at no less than the salvation of the Palestinian cause, stopping what he sees as the current free fall, establishing domestic and international safety nets to stabilize the situation as well as to protect Palestinians from future Israeli threats, and resuming its efforts toward a negotiated settlement. He aspires to cleanse the Palestinian polity, build a strong, respected central authority, establish transparent institutions, put an end to militia rule, help to reinvigorate the Israeli peace camp, and reestablish Palestine’s international legitimacy and, importantly, political ties to the US. Israel, he realizes, has succeeded in monopolizing the call for security, when Palestinians need it just as much, need it even more. His job is to restore a sense of safety to his people, and to make the world understand that they too deserve it—for only then can there be real security for the Israelis. Palestinians, he feels, must once again come across as a civilized people, living up to their commitments, seeking merely to fulfill their rights under international laws.

Abu Mazen is realistic enough to know that, with Sharon in power, a comprehensive settlement is nowhere in sight. It was not so long ago that, at his “Sycamore ranch,” the man who was not yet Israel’s prime minister spoke openly to Abu Mazen about his vision of the future. Neither people, Sharon said, is now ready for a final deal. Too much divides us—on Jerusalem, on refugees, on the final borders, on other matters as well. But we ought to do what, modestly, we can. What remains, we must leave to other generations to sort out.

Sharon, for Abu Mazen, has few mysteries and raises even fewer hopes. He sees in Sharon’s image of a future in which hard issues are forever postponed a sugar-coated death sentence for Palestinian national aspirations. But he trusts that, in the end, the Israeli people themselves will realize that a fair and comprehensive political solution will serve their interests too. For this, he relies on the power of political persuasion and takes solace in the road already traveled.

Israelis once refused to talk to the PLO; no more. They once derided the notion of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, of East Jerusalem as its capital; these too are becoming things of the past. One real hurdle remains, and it concerns the Palestinian refugees. But here again, he sees reason for hope: sooner or later, Israelis will come to accept the difference between the principle of the right of return and the implementation of that right; they will be ready to recognize the former, so long as the latter addresses Israel’s existential and demographic concerns. Meanwhile, so long as Sharon is there, undoing the harm that has been done since the outset of the intifada is Abu Mazen’s self-imposed mandate.

As much as anyone else, he is aware of the limits of his power. He enjoys far more international backing than either Sharon or Arafat, yet he is also by far the most vulnerable politically. He counts on and is gratified by this support, but he understands the dangers of an overly warm, suffocating embrace. He realizes that he has an almost impossible mandate: to crush Hamas without provoking a civil war, to restore security without appearing to be doing Israel’s bidding, to accommodate US demands without alienating and antagonizing his people. In undertaking these tasks, he must count on the Bush administration—powerful, still mysterious, and probably unreliable. Abu Mazen must act as if President Bush means what he says and will be without a safety net if Bush does not. He neither has nor expects much popular support, and he has already come under attack for giving Israel too much and getting too little; the most he can hope for is continued backing by the principal Palestinian groups that halfheartedly brought him there in the first place. Since he is frustrated with Arafat, the temptation to confront him is ever present. Step by step, he will seek to expand his margin of maneuver. But on all major issues, he knows, he will need Arafat’s agreement.

And so, his mission begins and ends with reversing the reversals of the past few years. The rest—the pursuit of a comprehensive peace, the conclusion of a final deal—he will have to hope for and await. For Abu Mazen, the minimal requirements of a final deal that will carry with it the Palestinian people and survive internal challenges are clear and unmoving. They also are virtually indistinguishable from Arafat’s and, he is convinced, it is Arafat’s signature and none other’s that will give the deal the legitimacy and sustainability it needs. His fervent hope is to get to that point before too much damage has been done, before it is too late.


A Roadmap

What happens on the Israeli–Palestinian front will depend in no small part on what President Bush chooses to do. But it is also upon the shoulders of these three men that the fate of the latest manifestation of the diplomatic process lies. The so-called roadmap for peace is a document manufactured elsewhere, chosen by others for the three of them to continue their decades-old fight through different means. They have been at it for long enough; they have seen proposals like these come and go. So they will adjust. But in truth it is an odd and awkward choice. Sharon sees the roadmap as a nuisance, Arafat as a diversion; Abu Mazen alone views it as worthwhile, but then again principally as a potential way out of the current mess. None of the three sees it for what it purports to be: a plan designed to reach a final settlement within three years. Not one of them truly believes in the logic of its gradualist, staged approach to peacemaking, which amounts to Oslo under a different name. Like so many plans before it, it is not its direct practical outcome that matters so much as its political effect—how its various actors will exploit it to maximize their very different, even contradictory goals.

In this, Sharon and Arafat bear striking similarities. Neither is in any particular hurry. Sharon believes that time is on his side, enabling him to continue his longstanding territorial expansion and bit by bit to further weaken an adversary he feels is already on the ropes. Arafat considers time his trusted ally as well. At the end of the day the Palestinians will still be there, and Israel, sooner or later, will have to relent. Neither man seems to fear the chaos and tumult of the present; each seems to believe he can endure it better than the other can. Power, they have learned, comes from surviving instability, not from seeking to end it. Both understand that to project a sense of desperation is already to have lost the war. Both know that roadmap or no roadmap, the battle must go on, in a shape and with an intensity yet to be determined.

Of the three, only Abu Mazen genuinely believes the disarray must be brought to an end; only he truly aspires to a return to normalcy and a resumption of a political process. In this, he enjoys the support of the United States and the personal backing of its powerful president. He has the help of the United Nations, of Europe, of much of the Arab world. He possesses an internationally adopted instrument, the roadmap, aimed in the first instance at restoring calm and tailor-made to shore up his domestic position. Why then, in the midst of such a crowd, does he feel so lonely?

—July 16, 2003