Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has set a date, January 24, for new presidential and parliamentary elections. But he has also threatened not to run for reelection--in other words, to resign and let the West Bank public choose his successor. Herein lies the troubled confluence of a host of issues. Only after analyzing them can we look at the bottom line and ask who would gain and who would lose were Abu Mazen to depart the Palestinian political scene.
By virtue of the inherent weakness of his position, Abu Mazen has seemingly maneuvered himself into a corner. By the most liberal of constitutional interpretations, his term is up in January. Elections held under present conditions will take place only in the West Bank, however, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and rendering more permanent the "three state" reality of separate Palestinian entities in the West Bank and Gaza. If, on the other hand, the election threat finally persuades Hamas to sign on to the Egyptian-sponsored unity framework, then elections will ostensibly be postponed until June but Hamas will participate and could win.
Abu Mazen also appears to be the last believer in the Obama vision for the region. US President Barack Obama promised a settlement freeze and Abu Mazen endorsed it. Now Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praises as "unprecedented" PM Binyamin Netanyahu's offer to build "only" 3,000 dwellings in settlements and a few more in East Jerusalem in the coming nine months and seemingly doesn't understand why Abu Mazen won't come on board. This, after the Palestinian leader lost considerable public support because he allowed himself to be persuaded by Obama first to meet with Netanyahu in Washington, then not to make an issue of the Goldstone report.
The Israeli-Palestinian juggling of roles embodied in all this peace process maneuvering is mindboggling. With Ehud Olmert, Abu Mazen agreed to negotiate despite settlement building, got an extremely generous offer and turned it down. With Netanyahu, Abu Mazen wants a total settlement freeze, knows that if and when negotiations begin he will not get anything approaching the Olmert offer, yet insists Netanyahu pick up from the point where the talks with Olmert were ended by Abu Mazen himself.
Meanwhile, the overall economic and security situation in the West Bank can be characterized as positive, not least because Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been removing roadblocks and checkpoints. Yet this development does not prevent many observers from speculating that the current stalemate is liable to launch a third intifada (we recall that outbreaks of Palestinian violence have usually taken place when times are good economically). Against this convoluted backdrop, resignation may be the only straightforward move Abu Mazen has to offer.
Yet he is only threatening to resign, and he has done that before. Few Palestinians appear to take him seriously. The threat is presumably meant to prompt everybody else, in Washington, Jerusalem and Gaza, to do so. So far, judging by Clinton's embrace of Netanyahu's stance on settlements and Hamas' refusal to come to Cairo and sign, it appears not to be working.
But what if Abu Mazen does resign? After all, he has on occasion followed through on his threats and walked away from office. Who gains and who loses?
Washington loses a peace partner, albeit one whose hard line on core issues like Jerusalem and refugees probably precludes the kind of comprehensive agreement Obama wants to produce within two years. Netanyahu also loses a peace partner, but the Israeli prime minister in any case does not appear to be really interested in a deal with the Palestinians or capable of carrying one out. On the other hand, if Abu Mazen's departure ends up ushering in violence in the form of a new intifada, Netanyahu will be held to blame and will have to answer to the Israeli public. Israelis will miss Abu Mazen, who is uncompromising in his rejection of Palestinian violence.
If Abu Mazen resigns, Hamas gains from a setback to Palestinian morale in the West Bank and possibly from ensuing unrest or worse. Egypt's efforts to bring about Palestinian unity and ultimately weaken Hamas are also thwarted.
This is all bad news. And it could come to pass unless Abu Mazen's refusal to run in the elections he has called causes Obama and Netanyahu to think again, recognize that Abu Mazen enjoys the advantage of the weak and offer him sufficient concessions and benefits to enable him to get out of the corner.- Published 2/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] is known as the Palestinian politician most dedicated to a peacefully negotiated end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His possible absence from the scene could have serious implications for the peace process.
Abu Mazen advocated dialogue between the PLO and Israel at a time when this was taboo within the Palestinian political elite. And when the time came for the first direct Palestinian-Israeli contacts, he was among the most enthusiastic and sought all possible means to establish the secret channel that eventually resulted in the Oslo process. This was in spite of Israel's official insistence to talk only to Palestinians from the occupied territories, rather than PLO leaders.
Abu Mazen thus became known as the engineer of the Oslo process. After the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the outbreak of violence, he kept his distance until elected as the second president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, after the passing of Yasser Arafat.
He ran his campaign and won on a ticket of exploiting every chance to return to negotiations and abandon confrontations. But since then, he was either unfortunate or subject to conspiracy. His term coincided with Ariel Sharon's advent of the unilateral approach that completely disregarded the Palestinian leadership. This approach contributed, among other factors, to a decline in the strength of Fateh and the rise of Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006 with an overwhelming majority.
The only chance to negotiate that Abbas has so far had was the Annapolis process with Ehud Olmert. Yet this turned out to be a false opportunity. US President George W. Bush was approaching the end of his second term in office while Olmert was being constantly weakened by persistent corruption charges that eventually led to his resignation. New Israeli elections brought a far-right government coalition headed by Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
On top of all this, this past month has brought two dramatic blows to Abbas and the Palestinian leadership under him. First was the pressure that caused him to support deferral of a vote on the first ever UN human rights report accusing Israel of war crimes. The second was the dramatic shift in Washington's position as it has abandoned efforts to ensure an Israeli settlement construction freeze before any resumption of negotiations.
These developments, together with the continuing division between the West Bank and Gaza, have apparently led Abu Mazen to consider not running for re-election in the forthcoming vote that he himself called for January 24. This was first made public when some Fateh Central Committee members leaked to the media that Abbas had told the committee to start looking for an alternative.
The possible absence of Abbas from both the domestic and Palestinian-Israeli scenes will have a dramatic effect simply because he holds the two main leadership positions in the Palestinian political system as president of both the PA and the PLO. Furthermore, Abbas is the cornerstone of the Palestinian peace strategy. Indeed, he is recognized as such by the outside world.
But most importantly, he is the last of what are known as the historical leaders, including Arafat and those closest to him, i.e., the founders of Fateh and the PLO. These leaders have carried enormous symbolic and popular weight. When Arafat died, there was no doubt who would succeed him. But if Abbas goes, there is no one of a similar stature and consequently the battle to succeed him will be tense and destabilizing. This is the last thing the Palestinians and their friends need.
Abu Mazen's status as the last of his kind may invite some sympathy for his plight, especially from Washington. Instability caused by the absence of Abu Mazen does not suit the American agenda. It may be hoped that the threat not to run for re-election will ensure considerable attention from Washington. The US must understand the need for more sensitivity toward internal Palestinian politics. The Palestinian leadership has been harmed considerably due to the way successive administrations have dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.- Published 2/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Too big a risk
by Yossi Beilin
It's certainly possible. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) always intended to serve as Palestinian president for a relatively short period of time and then pass the torch to the next generation. He has never sought power and prestige; in his day he resigned from the post of prime minister and, before that, from his positions in the PLO. He won't hold onto power at all costs. He also knows that a leader who threatens to resign must prepare to carry out his threat, and he is preparing. Anyone who tries to dissuade him is reminded by him that no one, himself included, is getting any younger.
The Palestinian situation is extremely problematic. The Palestinian Authority is torn between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and it is difficult to see the rift being healed. Hamas appears to be consolidating its rule in Gaza and it doesn't dream of holding elections or allowing any other innovation that offers the prospect of removing it from power. The Palestinian parliament is not functioning, and if it were it would topple the government in Ramallah. That government exists by virtue of a directive; the faction headed by the prime minister won all of two mandates in the last elections and has ceased to exist. Abu Mazen, who was elected for four years, is now in his fifth, based on a controversial interpretation of the temporary constitution.
Still, the PA is headed by two valuable leaders who have gained the world's admiration and have succeeded in providing their public with relative prosperity under complicated conditions. Abu Mazen, one of the founders of the PLO, presents a courageous and consistent position: the national interests of the Palestinian people will be secured through peace and good neighborly relations with Israel. Dr. Salam Fayyad is an economist with international experience who knows how to work with the world's financial institutions but also with his own public. In recent years, he has taken on the tasks of defense minister and managed to instill law and order in the West Bank.
The two know how to work together, even if here and there we hear about tensions between them. Neither is a charismatic leader. Yet if real leadership is measured by providing the most opportunities possible to the public under given conditions, we can state that these are leaders the Palestinian public can be proud of.
They are under tremendous pressure. Fateh activists want them to appoint Fateh people to various institutions. Hamas claims they are not legitimate while also demanding that they cut all ties with Israel. The latter demands even more security and political cooperation while the Americans insist they abandon all preconditions for peace talks. Both leaders have long been pondering the possibility of stepping aside; if it happens, it will not be a big surprise.
Nobody is indispensable, they say. But just because somebody replaces somebody else doesn't mean that he/she is a good replacement who can carry out the same tasks. The Abu Mazen/Salam Fayyad duo is unique in what it can give the Palestinian public, and is not easily replaceable. Quite a few people would like to take over their functions--yet some of these would turn their backs on the chance to effect an historic rapprochement with Israel, thereby causing heavy damage on both sides, while others would reverse the wheels of economic progress in the PA, back to the dark ages of backroom licenses and commissions. A combination of political refusal and economic corruption is the danger confronting the Palestinians if these two leave the political stage in the near future.
The resignation threat presents a real danger because there is no other Palestinian leader on the horizon who can enjoy the same international prestige and try to lead his public to an agreement with Israel. If Abu Mazen tells President Barack Obama he is considering resigning, the American leader should not consider this an empty threat. It would constitute a blow to his administration's regional policies following long months of wasted time and empty maneuvers.
Of course it's possible that this writer is mistaken. Conceivably, Abu Mazen will not run again for president and Salam Fayyad will not remain prime minister and they will be replaced by young and vigorous leaders who strive for peace as well as for law, order and an economy free of corruption. Perhaps I don't see these alternative leaders because they are currently hidden by those in power. But I fear that at this point in time the risk is too big for all those who believe in a diplomatic solution and who think the West Bank model is better than the Gaza model.- Published 2/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink, the business foreign ministry.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No obvious successor
an interview with Said Zeidani
bitterlemons: In the past week we've twice heard reports that Mahmoud Abbas is considering not running for re-election. How serious do you think this is?
Zeidani: As far as Abu Mazen [Abbas] personally is concerned, I don't think he is interested in another term. He has expressed his desire to step down and I think he is sincere. The question is whether he will be allowed by his own Fateh faction to do so. I think there will be pressure on him to stay and run for another term.
Zeidani: The movement is split, it's not as unified as it should be and there continues to be infighting and intrigue. I think it would be difficult for Fateh members to unite around another candidate. I cannot single out any one candidate that could unify Fateh behind him. Abu Mazen, because of his affinity with Arafat and his history, was a natural candidate when Arafat passed away. There is no one similar at the moment.
bitterlemons: Why now? What has led Abbas to this position?
Zeidani: First, he is not a young man; we're talking about someone in his seventies. He is disappointed as far as the peace process is concerned. Also, he is not the kind of politician that can handle the severe criticism from the many different directions that he's been exposed to, whether from his own movement, Hamas or beyond. All this comes in the absence of any real progress in the peace process.
bitterlemons: How large a part of this threatened resignation is about sending signals to the outside world concerning his disappointment?
Zeidani: It plays a part. The Americans, Europeans and Israelis are all interested in seeing Abu Mazen continue because of his stand against armed resistance and for peaceful negotiations.
bitterlemons: In case he does decide not to stand for re-election, what would be the consequences, particularly in his own party?
Zeidani: I think we have to look at the leadership of the national movement in two parts. First there will be a contest for the leadership of the PLO. Then there will be a contest for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. I can see the two positions being divided between two different leaders. There are no emerging leaders who can occupy the two positions together.
The Fateh movement will fight on both tracks, which might be good for the movement. The competition for top posts could perhaps solve some of the infighting in the party. But there will be a fierce struggle for succession.
bitterlemons: What effect might the absence of Abbas have on unity negotiations with Hamas?
Zeidani: The agreement with Hamas has to do more with who will lead the PLO after it has been reformed to include Hamas. I think any new leader of the PLO will come from, if not Fateh, than someone independent but close to Fateh. This might be key, to find a candidate that is acceptable to Hamas and other factions. But while it is possible to talk about qualities, it's harder to find the names.
bitterlemons: But would the absence of Abbas make it harder or easier to strike a unity agreement?
Zeidani: I don't think Abbas is the issue. Hamas' demands are clear. It wants its share within the PLO structure and there are disagreements about that share. I think Hamas is very interested in the PLO structure, because that can help cover some of its internal contradictions. If Hamas has its share in the PLO structure as well as the PA, without necessarily leading it, there can be agreement.
bitterlemons: Would Fateh win elections without Abbas?
Zeidani: I don't think Fateh will win any elections without a leader who can appeal to independents and undecided voters. The same goes for Hamas, for that matter. For president, at least, it will more likely be an independent, whether supported by Fateh or Hamas.
bitterlemons: What effect would Abbas' absence have on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Zeidani: I don't believe in the unique power of individuals. Individuals make a difference, but this has to be qualified. Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis will not be radically affected. There are all kinds of more important factors, for example, whether there is violence or no violence and what sort of violence prevails. Abbas has supported the peaceful non-violent way, but it hasn't worked. The American position has proven not only disappointing, but insulting to him.- Published 2/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Said Zeidani is professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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