Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ("Abu Mazen") is liked, but is not known, here in the US. This situation poses some challenges and presents some opportunities which the Palestinian leader ought to address as he prepares for his upcoming American visit.
Polling shows that Abbas is rated about the same as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with regard to his commitment to peace, his trustworthiness, and his favorability. While this may not seem impressive to Arab readers, it is important to recall that this near parity must be understood in the context of a multimillion dollar Israeli public relations campaign that has, for five years, worked to rehabilitate Sharon’s image while demonizing that of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and presenting the Palestinian people, in general, in an extremely negative light.
Abbas’s initial favorable ratings are due to two factors. He is not Arafat, and he has been embraced by President Bush as a "partner." With this has come the respect of many in the US foreign policy establishment.
Abu Mazen’s standing, therefore, is derivative. He, himself, is not known, nor has he made an effort, to date, to define himself to the US public. This can be precarious as the Palestinian leader is now learning.
While President Bush continues to speak highly of Abu Mazen’s potential as a leader, Israeli hard-liners and their supporters in the US have begun to chip away at his credibility and his leadership.
Sharon, who wants to maintain his ability to act unilaterally and, thereby avoid the need to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, used his recent visit to the US to take jabs at the Palestinian leader. Refusing to acknowledge Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority, Sharon only spoke of him as "Chairman" of the PLO. In private meetings he attempted to plant seeds of doubt about Abbas’s ability to control violence and lead the Palestinian people.
These doubts were echoed by Sharon’s acolytes in the Israeli and US media who alternately argued that Abbas was "in the service of terror" or "irrelevant."
For his part, President Abbas is well aware of this negative campaign. Addressing the Israeli press last week he noted, "Day and night, they are inciting against me in the Israeli media…Despite the instructions we have issued to halt incitement on our side, Israeli officials have not stopped inciting for a moment…Just like the first government I headed, we cannot get a moment’s rest from these onslaughts…We are not being given a chance."
He went on to observe that in addition to criticism, the Sharon government has pursued policies which make it difficult for his or any Palestinian leadership to succeed. The Israelis, he noted, have not eased checkpoints or delivered on promised prison releases. At the same time, Israel has continued its deadly incursions into Palestinian areas, and persisted in dictating unilateral conditions. Abbas concluded, "Give us a chance to act-and help us…The prisoners, for example, pushed more than any other sector, for the calm. But they also have to see a new attitude from the Israeli government on their case."
Abu Mazen’s position is a difficult one to be sure. He has three significant audiences that must be addressed. First and foremost, he is the Palestinian leader and, therefore, must focus on his domestic constituency. During his short campaign for President, when he took to the streets, he did a credible job speaking directly to his people winning their confidence and support. In his negotiations with Palestinian factions, he gambled and won concessions leading to a cease fire, buying time for peace negotiations and winning international support for his leadership.
At the same time Abu Mazen must address Israel’s public and here too he has made an effort with some resultant progress. His appeal last week for example, generated wide coverage and earned some support.
The audience that the Palestinian President has yet to address is public opinion in the US. And it is here that a real effort must be made. Because there is no US-based Palestinian information program, there is a critical void that must be filled. This is not the job that one man can do alone, but as the Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen has the ability and bears significant responsibility to define not only himself, but to make clear the Palestinian case before a waiting US audience.
Abbas’s upcoming visit is an important place to start. The visit should not be confined to Washington and New York. It is critical that Abbas meet with the President, State Department officials, members of Congress, and Washington think tanks. All this must be done, but it is not enough. The Palestinian President should take the opportunity provided by the visit to move beyond the beltway and directly engage the American people.
It would be important, for example, for Abbas to preview his visit by scheduling appearances on a few targeted US television interview programs. An article in a major US newspaper outlining not only his concerns and detailing actions he has taken, but also presenting his vision for the future of a Palestinian state, would enable Abbas to define his agenda and the purpose of his visit.
Once here, after his official visit has been concluded, he should move outside of Washington to deliver his message directly to American audiences and to engage them in conversation-putting on display his personal warmth and leadership qualities.
The success of this visit will be measured not only by the support Abbas receives from the President, but by the degree to which he uses this moment to articulate Palestinian concerns and define himself and establish a firm support base with the American people, on his own terms. This will inoculate the Palestinian President against the continuing Israeli assault and strengthen his ability to carry the Palestinian message to Congress and the White House in the difficult days ahead.