To an outsider, his curriculum vita is pretty impressive. He is the head of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO chairman and the head of Fateh. And if that were not enough, he was internally elected by the PLO as the "President of Palestine." On paper, Mahmoud Abbas seems to be a very powerful and influential man indeed. In reality, however, he is in somewhat of a pickle.
Whether we Palestinians agree with President Abbas’ style of governance or his philosophy on liberating Palestine, one thing is for sure. He is not in a very enviable position today, fancy titles or not. After wearing the hat of president for almost five years, Abu Mazen has little to show for it. On the contrary, the state of affairs he assumed responsibility for after taking the reins of power from late President Yasser Arafat is considerably much worse now than it was then.
It is no wonder then that last month, President Abbas announced he would not be running in any future Palestinian elections. He mostly blamed Israel for the decision along with the international community, charging Israel with not wanting peace and the world with not pushing Israel hard enough to give Palestinians their state. He’s right, of course on both accounts, but the fact remains that Abbas was playing a losing hand from the start.
When he assumed the presidency, the euphoria of the Oslo Accords had long worn off. Not only had the Palestinians failed to realize their independent and sovereign state on lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, Israel had expanded settlements, surrounded and further isolated Jerusalem, solidified its occupation by erecting hundreds of checkpoints around and between Palestinian cities and even besieged Arafat in his own compound for two years. When Abu Ammar died, it was the anti-climax of his entire life’s work. His dream of a free Palestine had been dangled before him only to be crushed beneath the chains of Israeli tanks and he himself died in stark contrast to a free man. What he left behind was an inflated Palestinian Authority fraught with corruption and a people weary of so many blows. So, when Mahmoud Abbas was sworn in as president, he brought with him all of his good intentions to "carry on the struggle" but not much else.
In all fairness, the winds of change that occurred over the past five years have not always been in his favor. While some of these changes have been partially of his and his authority’s own making, others have just been bad luck. Take for example, the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. Abbas was forced to deal (or not) with one of Israel’s shrewdest, cold-hearted leaders of all time. There is not much one can do with Netanyahu in terms of promoting peace, no matter who you are. So, in that department, Abbas is hardly to blame for the intransigence of Israel’s government vis-Ã -vis peace negotiations. On the contrary, at least Abbas has stood his ground in terms of not returning to the negotiating table without a complete freeze to settlement activity. If nothing else, he can take that tiny victory with him when he retires from public life.
That’s about all though. It was under Abbas that the dangerous and damaging internal split occurred. It is hard to predict whether the rift and bloodshed that took place between Hamas and Fateh and the ultimate division of power between the West Bank and Gaza would have happened under Arafat or not. But for whatever reason, be it internal or as a result of pressure from the international community, Abbas and company did not take Hamas’ rise to power in stride. The result, as most already know, has been disastrous.
Now, years later, the internal rift has intensified almost to a point of no return. There have been numerous attempts to reconcile the two Palestinian titans, but to no avail. Once blood has been spilled, it is that much harder to mend fences.
It seems as though Abbas (and most likely Hamas’ leadership) understands how impossible this situation is. So, instead of drawing out the saga even more, he has decided to throw the ball into someone else’s court. Abbas, in the eyes of many, has enough failures under his belt for a lifetime.
Let’s not forget the whole fiasco of the Goldstone Report, which certainly did not help boost Abbas’ popularity among his people. Not only was the peace process not moving in any positive direction but Abbas had publicly kowtowed to external pressures to delay a vote on the report in the UN. While he did make efforts to redeem himself, the damage was already done.
In the end, Abbas may be making the best move of his career. By not running (despite pressure from his own Fateh party and the PLO) he could save what little political face he has left. Not every leader must score big during their time at the top, but every leader should strive to depart with dignity.