In the midst of discussions regarding possible scenarios following Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision not to run for president, few have paid attention to the larger picture.
Abbas’ refusal to run for a second term as president of the Palestinian Authority signals a clear end of the Oslo phase in which he, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres were key players.
The Oslo process called for a step-by-step process as the best way to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The idea was that easier issues will be dealt with first, with the hope that confidence will be built between the two sides, making the resolution of the more difficult issues at a later stage possible. A five-year interim plan was suggested in the agreement signed on September 13, 1993, at the White House.
Some ambiguity was agreed upon in the written text of the agreement, but both sides were clear that the ultimate goal was the end of the 1967 Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians reluctantly agreed then not to insist on a settlement freeze, because Rabin said he needed time to convince the Israelis of the eventuality of a Palestinian state. Rabin didn’t live long enough to carry out his promise; his political heirs took the easy way out and failed to carry out this unwritten promise.
As the 20th century came to an end, it became clear that the five-year interim agreement was becoming permanent, negotiations were not reaching any conclusion and Jewish settlement building was continuing unabated. With no end in sight and the Israelis refusing to deal fairly with the requirements of peace, it was a question of time before the occupied territories exploded in a second, much more violent, uprising.
During the dark early years of the 21st century, Abbas was one of the few Palestinian leaders that clung to the hope that a negotiated process would eventually produce results that would address the minimum Palestinian national aspirations.
Sixteen years after that historic White House handshake, it has become clear that no effort is being made to convince the Israelis to come to term with Palestinian national aspirations. The number of illegal Jewish settlers in Palestinian areas has doubled and more and more Palestinians are convinced that negotiations are a waste of time.
Many still remember the threats of former Israeli prime minister Shamir to drag negotiations. Speaking to the Israeli daily Maariv, Shamir was quoted as saying: "I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for 10 years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million people in the West Bank."
The failure of the step-by-step negotiations has focused on the need to follow a different paradigm.
Abbas outlined the Palestinian red lines. His disappointment with the US administration has led him to believe that the way out of the present impasse is to work backwards. The Palestinian leader believes that instead of wasting time in wasteful negotiations, there must be a firm decision about the end result of the negotiations and then talks can deal with a schedule for implementation of such a results, rather than what negotiations should contain.
The two-state solution has become accepted bipartisan policy in Washington. The Palestinian and Israeli public have repeatedly been polled about a compromise solution roughly on the 1967 borders, with slight adjustments and a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Such a solution is best codified in what is referred to as the Clinton parameters. It is also detailed in the Israeli-Palestinian blueprint titled the Geneva Agreement.
Another approach is that of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who is convinced that Palestinians must prepare for statehood in spite of the occupation. In two years, Fayyad believes that a de facto Palestine will exist and it will then seek international recognition.
The flurry of US officials’ visits to Ramallah is likely to stop unless a major and important change takes place in Washington. In the meantime, Abbas will pay more attention to the home front, trying to stitch together some type of agreement with Hamas.
The PLO will most likely gain much from Abbas’ decision, as the Palestinian leader will likely de-emphasise the status of the president of the Palestinian Authority, while raising the profile of his position as the chairman of the PLO’s executive committee.
Abbas cannot resign from his post, so as not to allow the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council to take over, and he has not given up his position as the head of the PLO and the leader of its biggest faction, Fateh. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any Palestinian official from the PLO will be running for the position of president without Abbas’ approval until a new mechanism for an end to the occupation is found.