RAMALLAH — Although the new Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, is publicly committed to ending attacks on Israel through agreements with groups such as Hamas, the authority is prepared to use force unilaterally if talks fail, a top Abbas adviser told the Forward.
“For those factions who either are not willing to reach an agreement or who break agreements, we are going to have to use force,” said Ghaith Al-Omari, who was a foreign policy adviser to Abbas during his first tenure as Palestinian prime minister in 2003.
Al-Omari spoke to the Forward at Abbas’s office in Ramallah just hours before Abbas’s January 15 inauguration. The inauguration came during a weekend marred by numerous terrorist attacks against Israelis in and around Gaza, making it clear that Abbas’s first and most urgent challenge will be to show that his administration is willing and able to face down terrorist factions.
“If this doesn’t happen within a few weeks, it will be very difficult to move forward,” Al-Omari said.
Abbas has spoken out frequently against attacks, but few of his advisers have spoken as bluntly as Al-Omari about using force to end them.
Al-Omari said that several steps are already in process to enable Abbas to move against the terrorists. Most important, legislation has been prepared that will pare down the 17 separate Palestinian security forces to three: police, army and intelligence. Centralizing the security
services is meant to tighten Abbas’s control so that he can direct them toward fighting terrorism.
Israeli officials have been largely dismissive of P.A. talk about stopping attacks. Shortly before Abbas’s inauguration, Sharon ordered a halt to all official contact between Israel and the P.A., in response to a deadly attack launched from Gaza last week. “We are running out of patience,” Sharon’s media adviser, Ra’anan Gissin, told the Forward.
On Wednesday, however, the Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously to resume contact with the P.A., following trips to Gaza Tuesday by both Sharon and Abbas.
Abbas traveled to Gaza on Tuesday and met with representatives of various Palestinian factions to call for a cease-fire. His arrival was greeted by a suicide attack on an Israeli checkpoint near Gush Katif, but a Hamas spokesman later told Reuters that his group would “study the issue.”
When Abbas was prime minister in 2003, he won Hamas agreement for a shaky two-month cease-fire. He later resigned when the cease-fire collapsed and Yasser Arafat refused to let him reform the security forces.
Abbas told his own Cabinet that he would revive “the old security plan,” a reference to the 2003 cease-fire, said Elias Zanariri, a Palestinian official who was at the meeting. Zananiri said it was important that Israel give Abbas time to put his plans into action.
“Every leader has the first 100 days,” said Zananiri, an adviser to two Palestinian security chiefs. “They hardly gave him 10 hours to stop the attacks. At the meeting, he said he cannot do in one or two days what the Israeli army couldn’t achieve in four years.”
Both Zananiri and Al-Omari emphasized that Abbas will be working on two tracks at once, revamping his security forces while seeking a political agreement with Hamas and other armed factions in order to avoid violence. Al-Omari said the discussions with Hamas would likely involve giving the group a role in the Palestinian government.
“One might be loath to give them any space,” Al-Omari said, “but the reality is that they have turned into a significant political power. This is the political map.”
As these intra-Palestinian talks proceed, Al-Omari said the main thing his government needs from Israel is a reopening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“For me to be able to do regular security work that will not lead to a civil war, I have to convince people I am doing it to safeguard national interest,” Al-Omari said. “The only way I can do this is to provide them with a viable peace process.”
Given Al-Omari’s closeness to Abbas — during his interview with the Forward he was on and off the telephone, ordering last-minute changes in Abbas’s inauguration speech — he was able to offer an inside look at how that larger peace process might appear moving forward. In the past, the issue that has generated the most controversy has been the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees Abbas stirred Israeli fears during his recent election campaign when he promised refugees they would “come home,” implying a demand that they reclaim homes in what is now Israel. But Al-Omari said that Abbas purposely used ambiguous language permitting a “just and agreed-upon solution” like the one he said was broached during the Camp David peace talks in 2000, in which most refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel.
The more difficult final status issue will be Jerusalem, Al-Omari said, citing the numerous Jewish neighborhoods erected in the eastern portion that Palestinians claim as their capital.
A new survey conducted simultaneously among Palestinians and Israelis backed up Al-Omari’s assessment. The poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research together with the Hebrew University Truman Institute, found new moderation on both sides since Arafat’s death. Solid majorities on both sides favor a two-state solution close to the 1967 borders, with no massive return of refugees to Israel. However, majorities on both sides rejected the idea of a divided and shared Jerusalem.
Al-Omari said there will be no rush into final-status talks. First, he said, third-party actors such as the United States must help facilitate some degree of trust in the negotiations. “Today there is almost no trust between us and the Israelis,” Al-Omari said. “You need to rebuild some of that trust to be able to resume negotiations.”