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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Abu Mazen's Honeymoon Continues

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; 11:35 AM

Mahmoud Abbas is going to Iran. The announcement last week that the new Palestinian president would visit the country some believe is next on President Bush's list for regime change made more news in China than in the United States. Only the California-based Persian Journal picked up the Reuters dispatch reporting that Abbas would visit Iran "soon."

The prospect of Abbas meeting the mullahs of Tehran is not likely to please the Bush White House, which will welcome Abbas this spring and is increasingly open about its desire to see a new government in Tehran. Just days after Abbas's Iran trip was announced, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would give the Palestinian Authority $40 million in aid in the next 90 days -- assistance the Bush administration never would have extended to Yasser Arafat.

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Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, can get away with playing diplomatic footsy with the Iranians because the United States, Egypt, and Israel all have a stake in embracing him, according to international online pundits. His summit meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and their announcement of a halt to violent activity suggests his political honeymoon is not over yet. But online commentators suggest the post-Arafat optimism that has surrounded Abbas cannot last.

Abbas is acceptable to Washington because the United States needs a Palestinian partner right now, argues an unsigned commentary from Russia's RIA-Novosti news service.

"There is a growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and the Bush Administration hopes that a positive role in Israeli-Palestinian settlement will help it improve the U.S.' reputation across the wider Middle East," RIA-Novosti said. "The Arab-Israeli conflict seems easier to mediate in now that Mahmoud Abbas has been elected."

Still, many Palestinians "doubt the U.S. Administration will really be able to get the Arab-Israeli peace process back on track, bearing in mind the Americans' traditional bias toward Israel." The Moscow-based news site credited Rice with making the United States "more neutral in its mediation efforts."

Columnist Herb Keinon, writing in the Jerusalem Post, recalled a previous summit meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh that amounted to little more than verbiage.

In an October 2000 meeting between the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former prime minister Ehud Barak, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to "reestablish joint security mechanisms." The Palestinians promised to detain Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists and to curb attacks on Israeli targets. The United States would "act as a go-between to help [the two sides] reach mutual security understandings."

But those agreements were followed by four years of bloodshed.

"The same types of moves are expected to be declared Tuesday, with some change in nuance," Keinon wrote on the eve of the latest summit. "All of which goes to show that the possible ways of getting out of this impasse are finite, and have not altered dramatically over the last four years. "

One thing to watch, says Danny Rubenstein, West Bank reporter for Haartez, is the release of Palestinian prisoners.

"Once again, Palestinian demands for the release of veteran, sick and young prisoners are voiced -- and once again, Israel raises the argument about not releasing prisoners with 'blood on their hands.' As usual, Israel is prepared to release prisoners whose date of release is nearing, the wretched laborers caught working in Israel without a permit, and criminals."

The most important prisoner is undoubtedly Marwan Barghouti, a 45-year old Palestinian leader who is serving five life sentences for orchestrating terrorist attacks in Israel. Abbas promised Barghouti's representatives that he would raise the question of his release at the four-way summit, according to Debkafile.com, the intermittently reliable news site that claims close contacts in the Israeli security forces. There was no indication that Barghouti would be released, though there was a report by the AP in the Gulf News that his son, also held in an Israeli prison, might be released.

Debkafile reports that two top Israeli intelligence officers are warning the Sharon government against any significant compromises with the Palestinian leader.

"Abu Mazen will never take firm control of the reins of power and will soon be gone," one top officer is quoted as saying. "The so-called ceasefire is nothing but a pipedream now and in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Israel would be ill-advised to strip itself of security assets and squander its concessions for the sake of a transient leader and an illusory halt in violence."

The editors of the Daily Star in Beirut sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, say the problem is Israel's unwillingness to countenance an independent Palestinian state. The big test of Abbas and the United States, they say, will come in six months, "after the Israelis pull out of the Gaza Strip and then most likely drag their feet on any other significant compromise or concession."

"What will the U.S. do then . . . beyond the easy steps being implemented these days?" the editorial asks.

Few Palestinians believe the Bush administration will really coerce Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank. Few Palestinians believe it. But Abu Mazen thinks so and for now everyone is giving him the benefit of the doubt and invitations to come visit.


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