Abbas’ new style: strategy or suicide?

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Bodies press against each other in the scorching heat as Qalandiya checkpoint fills up faster than the lone Israeli soldier on duty can check Palestinian IDs. Complaints and curses fill the air, but the loudest of them comes from a young man of college age.

“Where is Abu Mazen?” he sings out over the heads of the crowd. His accusing lament, directed at Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, is only one of the worrying tremors in a carefully stacked house of cards.

Abbas, also know as Abu Mazen, has staked his career on three precepts: ending the armed Palestinian uprising, protecting Palestinian political cohesion (i.e., “national unity”) and implementing the incremental process of fiscal reform underway in the Palestinian government. He has chosen to do this by manipulating all of the tools he has: getting into the good graces of the United States, cajoling the political factions to a ceasefire (even if it was Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti who actually stitched the truce together), and applying Palestinian law.

“He is doing everything in his power,” says former negotiator Saeb Erekat of Abbas’ efforts.

But the tool that escapes Abbas is that which may bring his house of cards tumbling down. Unless the Israeli government demonstrates a meaningful commitment to peacemaking through a substantial release of Palestinian prisoners or troop withdrawals that make a difference in daily Palestinian life, two key elements of ceasefire – and subsequently US largesse – will slip quickly from Abbas’ hands. The Palestinian consensus says that the gift of ceasefire may only be given in return for substantial Israeli concessions, and while Abu Mazen may personally believe in the need to end the Intifada without conditions, his view persists only due to the public’s good graces.

Those close to the prime minister and familiar with his leadership strategy talk about a “new style.” At the Aqaba summit, where Abbas met US President George W. Bush for the first time, aides say that he arrived intent on convincing the American administration that Palestinians had turned over a new leaf. Pleased with the American reception to his attitude, Abbas said after the summit that Palestinians had elevated their standing in American eyes from negative numbers to zero – a decent starting point, he thought.

The acquiescent Aqaba strategy was meant to build political capital with the United States. Where it failed was in explaining that strategy back home. Anger among Palestinians at Abbas’ Aqaba speech was palpable. “Arafat would never have said that,” said one taxi driver, referencing the Palestinian president’s style of speaking in litanies of inalienable Palestinian rights. The two Palestinian leaders have uneasily shared power since Abbas was appointed on April 29.

The question, say top Palestinian leaders, is whether Abbas’ new style will survive long enough to become Palestinian modus operandi. “If he succeeds and if his persuasive tactics lead to a real compliance by all the Palestinian factions and if the Americans really use their influence to get Mr. Sharon to comply and stop assassinations, he would have really accomplished a great feat. This ‘style’ will mean much more than style, but will also become a new strategy,” says foreign affairs minister Nabil Shaath. “I am praying for it to work out, myself.”

At press time, however, Abbas was facing mounting criticism from inside the ranks of his own faction Fateh. While Israeli security is preparing a list of prisoners to release in accordance with the roadmap and demands of the waiting factions, the cabinet only approved the release of prisoners with “no blood on their hands” (by Israeli criteria, only several hundred of the some 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails) and then only if Palestinians disarm and drive underground the Palestinian opposition groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

While Palestinian security head Muhammed Dahlan is coy on the issue of a crackdown on armed groups, saying that the time is not yet ripe to discuss the issue, Abbas committed himself in taking office to “ensure that only legitimate weapons are used to preserve public order and implement the law.” It is a clever device, one that puts the issue of disarmament in the realm of “national unity,” a goal fully supported by the Palestinian consensus. Abbas recently said that truce-breakers would answer to Palestinian courts rejuvenated by his own administration’s attempt to cement the rule of law.

But when asked, even the mainstream heart of Fateh says that it will not give up its arms. “When we are talking about one unified authority, we accept the concept,” says Fateh Higher Committee member Ahmed Ghneim. “We expect one unified authority within Palestinian controlled territory. And if the Palestinian people get their freedom and independent state, then we don’t need the weapons of the resistance. We will have official security forces. But as long as the Israelis are continuing the occupation of our country, we will keep our weapons with full respect for the hudna [truce].”

Abbas, then, while symbolizing a new style of leadership, is fighting a losing battle to get past haggling details with Israel into substantial issues that will make his government tangible to Palestinians. “If people want to help Abu Mazen, they must enable Abu Mazen to show Palestinians that settlement activity has stopped, that prisoners are released, closures have lifted and Israel has withdrawn and that there is a meaningful peace process,” says Shaath.

It is not only the political process at stake, but Palestinian civic life. Finance minister Salam Fayyad has been working to unify all official accounts, recently putting the earnings of 78 semi-official companies, including the Palestinian Authority share of the Jericho casino, under his ministry’s ledgers. In weeks, ministers will be required to account for all their earnings, and the prime minister has stated his personal goal of trying those who would break fiscal transparency laws. Only leadership acts like this will convince the Palestinian public that Abbas’ government is any different from the Palestinian Authority they knew before. And the only way to make these internal changes happen, oddly enough, is with Israel’s help.

Last week, a Palestinian man arrived in his village of Turmousaya bearing a gift for his 15-year-old son. From Ramallah, he had carted two pigeons in a ventilated cardboard box, carefully checking them every few minutes as he sat at the Atara checkpoint. The soldiers manning the checkpoint lounged in the shade, lazily and impertinently waving a Palestinian car past every ten minutes. It was only after a two-hour journey in the afternoon heat that the man presented the birds to his son.

“But father,” the boy cried. “They died on the way.” And so too, shall any meager Palestinian hopes that choosing Abbas would result in an easing of the Palestinian plight, if Israel does not soon demonstrate a real commitment to making peace.

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.

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