Who is at the table?
How's this for a first month on a new job? Your boss is Yasser Arafat, who jealously tries to undercut you at every turn. The President of the United States is pressing you to stop Islamic militant groups from carrying out suicide bombings. The man sitting across from you at the negotiating table - the hawkish, settlement-building Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon - represents everything you have fought against during your career.
Compounding your difficulties is the fact that you are not elected. Furthermore, you are perceived by most of your constituents as a US stooge, and you control but a fraction of the security forces that you need to stop the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from waging terror.
Amazingly, Mahmoud Abbas - better known as Abu Mazen - hasn't quit his job as the first Palestinian Prime Minister, even after the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in nearly three years was marked with five suicide bombings by Islamic militants that killed 12 Israelis and wounded dozens.
He met again with the Israeli leader on Thursday evening to prepare for next week's summit with President Bush in Jordan.
Despite these formidable obstacles and a brief tenure in office already stained by blood, vicious inter-office politics and recycled rumours that he is a Holocaust-denier, as well as a follower of the Bahai faith and not a Muslim, the 67-year-old Abbas is making headway.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth this week, Abbas predicted he would reach a ceasefire agreement next week with Hamas, the largest Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip..
Despite clear signs that Israel is ambivalent about the road map, Abbas has refused to criticise the Israeli Prime Minister publicly.
"I don't want to judge Sharon by what he says or by what's said about him. I know him inside and out. I'll believe him only when he implements the road map. The implementation is the only test as far as I'm concerned," he told the Israeli daily Haaretz.
While US involvement in the peace process will ease friction with the Israeli leader, it can do little to smooth relations with Arafat, who appointed Abbas Prime Minister last month under pressure from Washington.
The pair have known each other for nearly 40 years, since co-founding the Fatah movement in 1965, and the quintessential grey suit of Palestinian politics has always operated in Arafat's shadow. Among Palestinians there is no question who is more popular. A recent poll by the Palestine Centre for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think-tank, showed Arafat with a 35 per cent approval rating and Abbas on 3 percent.
Arafat seems to miss no chance to put Abbas in his place. Reports persist that Arafat forced the postponement of a second summit with Sharon after throwing a tantrum and reminding Palestinian officials in the room, including Abbas, who was in charge.
Still, Abbas refuses to publicly criticise Arafat, whom Israel and the US now refuse to meet. Although Abbas was the chief Palestinian negotiator for the Oslo agreement in 1993, he now has little time to win concessions. With so little support among Palestinians, he is unlikely to survive in office for very long if he cannot improve their lives and show the road map pays. - Craig Nelson
Born in 1946 and elected President in January 2001, he declared a war on terrorism in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Amid continuing Palestinian terrorist attacks and a series of failed US-brokered ceasefires, he made a speech in April last year calling for a Palestinian state but criticising Arafat for failing to stop terrorism. Last June he unveiled a major initiative indicating that US support for a Palestinian state was contingent on a new Palestinian leadership.
Born in 1928, Sharon entered politics in 1973 after an illustrious 25-year army career. As defence minister in 1982, he was credited with masterminding Israel's controversial invasion of Lebanon. An Israeli inquiry later found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, but he refused to heed its call to resign. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was a leading supporter of the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. After the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, he was elected Prime Minister in February 2001.
Though he will not be at the peace talks, Yasser Arafat still exerts a strong influence. Born in 1929, he became leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1969. In 1988, he announced a change of PLO policy, renouncing terrorism and recognising Israel. He supported Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, before joining the Oslo peace process, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Elected Palestinian president in 1996, he has tended to be more dictatorial than democratic.
©Copyright 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/05/30/1054177725127.html