When Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Israel this weekend to discuss the "road map" for peace, he will find Palestinian President Yasir Arafat still firmly in control of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refusing to even discuss the plan until the Palestinians give up their right-of-return to Israel.
"The big issue is that Arafat is still in control and there has been no regime change," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
That became evident when Arafat was able to delay until the last moment the approval of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister, the fact that he still retains control of most of the Palestinian security forces, that he pressured Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh not to release a new peace plan, and that he will map out the Palestinian talking points for the Sunday meeting with Powell.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Tuesday that "the principal threat [to Abbas’ success] will not be from [the terrorist group] Hamas but from the chairman [Arafat]."
Regime change had been a prerequisite for release of the road map, but now that it has been released, Steinberg said, it appears the State Department wants to ignore Arafat in the belief he will become isolated over time.
"Israeli officials are saying no, that they are not willing to play into Arafat’s hands," Steinberg said, adding that these different approaches caused friction between Israeli officials and William Burns, the U.S. Middle East envoy who visited the West Bank and Israel this week.
It was after the visit that Sharon raised the right-of-return issue in a pre-Independence Day interview.
"The right-of-return is a recipe for the destruction of Israel," he insisted. "We will not accept such a thing. We made that very clear."
Although saying Israel would not negotiate with the Palestinians until they dropped their demand for the right-of-return, Sharon said the issue of 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced by the War of Independence in 1948 would be negotiated as part of the final stages of the peace process.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said the reason this is such a hot-button issue for Israel is that the road map calls for Israel to "declare from the beginning" its acceptance of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. And the Palestinians, according to the road map, "are not expected to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state."
"So Israel will declare its support for a Palestinian state now and the Palestinians say they will discuss the right-of-return in the final status negotiations," Shoval said. "This is totally unacceptable."
He pointed out that the road map actually refers to the Saudi peace plan, which mentions a United Nations resolution supporting the Palestinian right-of-return.
"These points will have to be clarified because without that, the road map does not move forward," Shoval maintained. He added that he would like to see success for the Palestinians under Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, but stressed, "It is up to them, not us."
In response to Sharonís comments, Abbas told Palestinian reporters that Sharon’s demand "is one of the dreams we reject completely."
Aaron Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, told The Jewish Week that although the Palestinians cannot ignore Israel’s "legitimate" arguments, Israel "can’t make it a deal breaker before we get started."
"If [Israel] wants the Palestinians to abandon the right-of-return as the initial down payment to get anything started, then we are not going to get anywhere," said Miller, who retired in January to become president of Seeds of Peace, a group that promotes Arab-Jewish peace through their young people.
Miller said Israel should "park that final-status issue and deal with other issues, from Palestinian security performance and incitement, to settlement activity and restrictions on Palestinian movement."
He said Powell is expected to press to "get the security situation to the point where there is normal life for Israelis and Palestinians. The elimination of the threat of suicide bombers and terrorist attacks will eliminate IDF [Israel Defense Forces] responses. It is doable, but it is not for the fainthearted."
"To govern in Palestinian politics," Miller continued, "you need money, guns and political legitimacy. Abu Mazen has been accepted [as prime minister], but that is only the first step. Arafat will continue to compete for these three resources, and Abu Mazen will be sandwiched between Arafat and Hamas and Islamic Jihad."
Ehud Olmert, Israel’s minister of industry and trade, said the success of the road map depends on the "efforts of the Palestinians towards terrorist organizations."
He also debunked the notion that Israel would accept 100 percent Palestinian effort to end terrorism while 80 percent of the attacks continue.
"Forget about it," he told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization here this week. "If terror continues, there will be no meaningful progress. As long as Arafat is there, nothing of great consequence will happen.
"Don’t get carried away with Abu Mazen and [Mohammed] Dahlan," Olmert said.
Dahlan, who had been given limited security responsibilities at Arafat’s insistence when the cabinet was approved last week, was tapped by Abbas Tuesday to be his new interior minister. Abbas made the announcement at a Fatah meeting in Ramallah that was attended by Arafat, and it reportedly touched off an argument between the two men. The argument was seen as a continuation of their struggle for power over the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat, according to Olmert, "is far from losing his grip on security forces and he is trying to play a major role" in all Palestinian Authority activities.
Although there were reports this week that Abbas was trying to reach a two-year cease-fire with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups, Israeli officials said they would never accept such a cease-fire because it would only be a ruse for those groups to rearm.
Olmert said he is convinced that the only way for the Palestinian terrorist organizations to end their activities is to dismantle their infrastructure through a "painful, bloody confrontation between moderate and terrorist groups."
"If we don’t see that, I won’t believe any of their promises," he said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said that not only does Arafat still retain control of most of the security forces but that most of those in Abbas’ cabinet are Arafat’s "people who were involved in corruption in the past."
"The onus is on Mazen to prove he can exercise control," Hoenlein said, adding that among the things he must do according to the road map is to confiscate illegal weapons.
Asked about a report this week that Mazen was considering "drafting" all those in Gaza with illegal weapons into the Palestinian Authority’s paramilitary police force, thereby making the weapons legal, Hoenlein replied: "If they are going to try to make a sham of compliance, it’s going to fail."
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that in Powell’s Sunday meeting with Abbas, the secretary should call on him to "outlaw all terrorist groups (thereby allowing him to arrest its members immediately) demand the handing over of all illegal weapons within 30 days, and the handing over of the 100 terrorists [on Israelís most wanted list] within 30 days. You must expect that before Israel is asked to do anything."
But Klein said he does not expect Powell to make those demands because "they are not in the road map."
# Miller, the former State Department official, identified three things that must be done in order for the peace process to work:Security forces must be placed in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. He said the PA’s loss of that monopoly ("willingly or unwillinglyî") remains the "most serious threat to the integrity and viability of the [peace] process."
# A serious decision-making channel must be created by the Palestinians that includes a security and political dimension so that it can take action while the Israelis provide the space and time to do it.
# The United States must make an effort "that is nothing short of 24-7, with an envoy," and that "it requires the State Department involvement, and episodically the president."
"If those three things are assembled, we have a chance of changing the crisis," Miller said. "I am not suggesting that we will create an environment for permanent status negotiations: that is further down the road. But what we want now is to end the violence and eliminate what has been a 21/2-year day-to-day confrontation."
A new poll this week found that 58.7 percent of Palestinians polled in the Gaza Strip were pessimistic about chances the new Palestinian cabinet will reach a peace settlement with Israel. But nearly two-thirds favored an end to attacks on Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories.