Appointing Abu Mazen: A Drama with Two Enactments

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The Palestinian Legislative Council’s approval of the cabinet of newly appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on April 29, 2003 completed a political drama with two enactments: one received with cheers by the international community and the other watched warily by a sober audience at home.

Since George W. Bush called for Palestinian “reform” on June 24, 2002, all sides have understood that US re-engagement in the mired Israeli-Palestinian peace process would not occur until Palestinian President Yasser Arafat — blamed for everything from corruption to terrorism to the collapse of negotiations — was put on the shelf. The Bush administration predicated release of the “road map,” a document describing steps toward Palestinian-Israeli peace drafted by Russia, the UN, the European Union and the US, upon a Palestinian prime minister’s appointment and confirmation. The Quartet of powers had someone specific in mind. Early in the current Palestinian uprising, US agencies conducted a secret survey to sort out who might succeed Arafat. The survey found that the Palestinian public generally assumed Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, would fill the shoes of the departed Palestinian leader. The agencies must have thought they had a windfall — the public had bestowed legitimacy on a man who had been instrumental in past peace talks and was considered not half bad in Western estimations.

So journalists and diplomats converged on Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters with great anticipation that they would witness the changing of the Palestinian guard, a first precondition for the outbreak of peace. Both CNN International and the BBC carried the event live.

Two days after Abbas was confirmed, by contrast, Palestinian political figures are observing how little has changed and how much Arafat remains in charge. Hamas and the al-Aqsa Brigades, the main paramilitary forces whose operations Abbas has hinted he will curb, have vowed to continue their armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, including suicide attacks on civilians inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s campaign to crush Palestinian militants through force has not abated. In the latest incident, early on May 1, Israeli soldiers raiding deep into Gaza killed eight Palestinians, including two children, in the course of a “gun battle” with an accused Hamas cadre. As far as the broader Palestinian public is concerned, Abu Mazen’s tenure has gotten off to a very bumpy start.

Besides anger at the Israeli incursions, one of the most persistent sentiments expressed by the Palestinian public is pessimism that any figure on the horizon can battle what they see as rampant mismanagement of their feeble government. Forty-three percent of Palestinians polled by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) in April 2003 said that the prime minister-elect would have no positive or negative effect on the process of reform — a matter of deep concern to Palestinians years before Bush adopted it as a slogan in June of 2002. The same poll ranks Abu Mazen seventh on a list of most trusted Palestinian personalities. Under 2 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip chose Abbas. The new prime minister must prove himself if he is to succeed Arafat.

“Reform is our issue”

In the summer of 1997, the 88 elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) voted to demand a new cabinet from Arafat. The move came out of the Council’s review of the first Palestinian Authority comptroller’s report, which unearthed extensive mismanagement and corruption in Palestinian ministries, as well as inadequate legal mechanisms for tracking down abuses. Indeed, complained the Council’s subcommittee, even the comptroller’s report was incomplete.

Incensed by stories of ministries selling expired flour and improperly marked drugs, as well as news that government officials were spending public funds on top-of-the-line cars, central home heating and personal phone bills, the council demanded that Arafat dump the ministers who had failed performance reviews and select a cabinet “of technocrats and experts” in their stead.

Back in 1997, when no one thought to question who ran the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arafat initially responded to the Council’s complaints by ignoring them. Only a full year later, when the PLC threatened a vote of no confidence, did he react. Still, a new cabinet list was not presented until after Arafat returned from a long tour of Austria, Morocco and Turkey. (In his absence, one lawmaker broke up the house by declaring, “As long as there is no definite timetable for the president’s return, I call for an emergency meeting to take drastic measures.” Everyone knew that without the president, nothing could be done.)

Finally moving to silence the clamoring legislators, Arafat left nearly every minister in place — and added ten more to create a sprawling cabinet of 28 people. Many of the additions were members of the subcommittee that had authored the damning report, leading observers to conclude that Arafat had simply bought off his competition. Ministers Hanan Ashrawi and Abd al-Jawad Saleh resigned in disgust after the new government was approved by a majority of 55 votes. These deft maneuvers to undermine the PLC offered a lesson in Arafat’s style as leader of a quasi-government, and cemented a base of internal opposition to the PA.

Though the disintegration of the Oslo “peace process,” Israel’s attacks upon Palestinian security services and infrastructure and the physical confinement of Arafat himself have at times boosted the PA’s popularity, this opposition has remained consistent in its calls for reform. It is an opposition that has inadvertently benefited from outside pressure on the PA, while rebuffing charges of driving a wedge in the Palestinian national movement. PA officials have capitalized on the outside interference to mobilize nationalist sentiment. On April 29, sitting before a chamber packed with foreign journalists and diplomats, including European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos, PLC speaker Ahmad Qurei’ kicked off the presentation of Abu Mazen’s cabinet with an expression of annoyance at the intense media scrutiny. “Please leave us alone,” he told the gathering. “This situation is ours and reform is our issue alone.”

Abu Mazen’s List

Legislator Hatem Abd al-Qadir, a member of Arafat’s faction Fatah, puts the date of the first discussions over the creation of a prime ministerial post at four years ago. On March 17, when a law was finally passed codifying the prime minister’s powers, Abd al-Qadir said that the change was imperative. “We need someone to take responsibility for the ministers; this is important for us as we organize and clean house.”

That day, he was particularly worried that Arafat would intervene to block the vote. The president wanted a political novice with technical background, rather than a PLO figure with a power base who might present a political challenge. It was Fatah that had insisted that the prime minister come from inside the PLO. It was also Fatah that had used its majority in the PLC to give the prime minister-to-be control over “internal affairs,” while leaving diplomacy in the realm of the PLO and its chairman, Arafat. By the end of the day on March 17, Fatah leaders had pressed Arafat to give full control over cabinet selection to prime minister-designate Abbas.

The new prime minister was given several weeks to choose his team. In the beginning, assessments were that he wouldn’t alter much, save the minister of interior, who controls the strategic security services. On April 13, however, when Abbas presented his proposed cabinet list to a night-time meeting of Arafat and key members of the Fatah Central Council, nearly everyone involved was stunned. The list included dramatic and unexpected changes, but it was not designed to please Arafat or the reformers, Fatah or the technocrats. Rather, with the exception of the retention of Salam Fayyad as finance minister, Abu Mazen’s proposed cabinet seemed aimed at pleasing Abu Mazen’s friends.

For the first time in 2003, the Palestinian finance ministry under Fayyad had published a budget that detailed many previously hidden expenditures. “I majored in economics and for the first time, I read the budget with great interest,” said legislator Abd al-Jawad Saleh, trying to be supportive but critical at the same time. “In the previous budgets we were looking for the flaws, the violations of the law, but this minister and this budget were really in line with economic and financial policies.” Saleh, known as a ferociously independent government critic, railed at executive interference, budget priorities and hidden income, but gave Fayyad many points for effort.

The remaining nominations, however, left Fatah members feeling betrayed. “Look,” says West Bank Fatah leader Ahmad Ghneim. “We were talking about a new government and new faces. People were looking for new hope. But Abu Mazen selected people from the same books. Some were named in the [1997] corruption reports. Some were removed because they didn’t do a good job. We had problems with his selections.” Abu Mazen had not heeded the slow but building consensus that internal mismanagement must be abolished, giving Arafat a chance to mobilize Fatah on his side in the widely reported dispute over the cabinet’s composition.

Division of Labor

Arafat primarily objected to Abu Mazen’s attempts to sideline his traditional allies. Powerful Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, tipped by Abbas for the interior minister’s slot, had resigned during the last cabinet change because of differences with the aging president. Arafat told Abbas that the interior minister had to come from inside Fatah’s Central Council, to which Abbas responded by suggesting himself for the position and Dahlan as minister of state for security affairs. That made Arafat even angrier.

On April 23, as the dispute went into the final hours before a midnight legal deadline, international interlocutors from Russia, the US, Europe and other countries were phoning the Palestinian leader to lean on him. The interventions were a mix of enticing promises concerning the “road map,” and threats about Arafat’s culpability were Abu Mazen to “fail.” Arafat had not received so much attention since he and his aides were locked in his offices, Israeli earthdiggers pecking away at the walls, in April of 2002.

The final diplomatic push arrived in the early afternoon on an Egyptian helicopter. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, also author of the six-point plan to deliver Fatah and its Islamist opposition Hamas to a ceasefire agreement, managed to bring Abu Mazen from his home (the Arabic press used the word describing an estranged wife to depict his self-imposed isolation) to the presidential offices for a one-to-one meeting with Arafat.

A few hours later, the three were filmed together, Arafat smiling in true form. The deal was reportedly a division of labor, with Abu Mazen taking the interior ministry portfolio and Dahlan becoming a minister of state for security affairs, but Arafat or his loyalists maintaining control of some aspects of both jobs. For his concession, Arafat was also promised that he would not be dismissed and that effort would be spent trying to get him released from Israel’s isolating chokehold.

Looking out for number one

The international applause was overwhelming. Israel’s Labor Party leaders told the daily Ha’aretz that they would consider joining Sharon’s government, if it was working with Abu Mazen toward a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Bush said he would invite the new prime minister to the White House. “I believe Abu Mazen is a man dedicated to peace and I look forward to working with him for a two-state solution,” he told NBC News. (Abbas retorted that he wasn’t going anywhere if Arafat wasn’t also invited.)

Israeli and US reactions stemmed from the widespread perception that the differences between Arafat and Abu Mazen were of substance, not only over who was in charge. Ha’aretz reported the day of the agreement that the Abbas-Arafat dispute was actually over Abbas’ planned approach for handling armed Palestinian groups that continue attacks on Israel. In the past, Abbas has proposed a one-year hiatus in “armed struggle” and spoken against suicide bombings. In support of this interpretation, observers noted Arafat’s penchant for keeping all options open — shutting down armed resistance would require an iron fist and leave Palestinians without bargaining chips in the event of a return to the negotiations table.

But few Palestinian political figures agreed with that description of the clash. “This is a struggle over who is number one,” said one official. “Abu Mazen will not accept Arafat’s decision because he wants to say, ‘I am in charge,’ and Arafat will not accept Abu Mazen’s dictates because he is saying ‘I appointed you. You don’t tell me what to do.'” Legislator Abd al-Qadir said, too: “There has to be a partnership; each is [currently] dealing with the other as if by force.”

Adding weight to this later assessment, most Palestinian political observers believe that it is politically impossible for any security figure, no matter how strong, to stop armed resistance against Israel as long as checkpoints remain encircling Palestinian towns and assassinations of Palestinian activists continue. (When asked if Dahlan was really interested in shutting down the intifada, one man said, “And how is he going to do that?”) As if to illustrate that point, the morning after the Arafat-Abbas deal, a Palestinian man linked to Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades blew himself up in the Kfar Saba rail station, killing one Israeli security guard.

Looking through an Israeli lens, even military analyst Zeev Schiff had to concur. “If Israel rejects Arafat as the Palestinian leader who can cooperate with it and resume the negotiations, it must accept Abu Mazen and his cabinet, and Dahlan and his security forces as the new leadership. But they will only succeed in winning Palestinian public support if Israel also helps them in humanitarian, economic and geographic matters, and keeps its part in the soon-to-be published road map.”

The external emphasis on what was portrayed in the media as a coup, as well as the final denouement at the behest of Egyptian intelligence left a bitter taste for some. “This was a big political mistake,” said Ghneim. “If pressure comes from outside and is successful [at changing our minds] then maybe in political talks, we will give in to external pressure as well.” Still, Fatah was working hard to get the cabinet approved, Ghneim said. In the face of the widespread dissension, that was not an easy task.

“It will pass,” predicted Fatah’s Ghneim, “but with difficulty. Many people are working to get the Legislative Council members to agree, even though we have problems with the list.” In actuality, not all of the positions had been finalized in the Abbas-Arafat deal. Names were dropped and added through faction negotiations right up to April 29 when the Legislative Council voted on the new cabinet (this was just the kind of “winking” at the law that drove some legislators mad). “We don’t want people to wait anymore; we want to engage the peace process,” explained Ghneim of Fatah’s decision to push the list forward. The final call was made at a Fatah meeting on the eve of the Legislative Council vote. When it was suggested that legislators be allowed to make their concerns known by voting individually on the ministers on the list, both Arafat and Abu Mazen turned this down. Neither wanted a public airing of the long-standing concerns about mismanagement and transparency.

Road Map to where?

But despite rumors that Abu Mazen would announce a sweeping crackdown on armed Palestinian groups, what actually happened at the Ramallah compound was much more ordinary. Arafat spoke vociferously about Palestinian suffering and exhorted the world to pay attention to the Palestinian cause. At the moment when he asked the new cabinet to “continue national dialogue,” he clasped Abu Mazen’s hand.

Mahmoud Abbas spoke in detail about the challenges before the Palestinian government: protecting plurality without “security plurality,” giving special attention to Palestinian women, instituting a civil service law to protect 130,000 government employees and, of course, stamping out corruption. And, in case there was any question, he told the gathering: “The internal situation cannot be separated from the painful political reality in which we live: the deplorable occupation and its accompanying colonization and oppressive policies that have caused us tremendous pain and suffering.” Palestinians never expected a dramatic ceasefire announcement, nor do they see Abu Mazen carrying it out now. At most, analysts expect stepped-up talks with armed groups behind the scenes. Israel has already dismissed such backdoor efforts out of hand.

The world press was nonplussed by Abu Mazen’s speech. “Anybody who is looking for a radical departure in policy will be disappointed,” reported CNN’s Jerrold Kessel, “but anyone looking for a conciliatory tone, certainly it was there…. There has to be a comprehensive political solution, a peace solution, and he promised he would work in that direction.”

But that really wasn’t what this was all about. Hanan Ashrawi tried to explain to the press why it had witnessed a tiny tick forward in the grueling internal Palestinian revolution. “This is the beginning of a period of transition, let’s put it that way. And it is internal primarily. But at the same time, the road map and external intervention and participation were all made dependent on the Palestinians carrying out this internal shift.” Both “old leaderships” had played the familiar game of wielding personal loyalties, she said. Now it is time to move on to free elections.

One day after the PLC accepted the cabinet of Mahmoud Abbas and only hours after that cabinet was sworn in, envoys from the Quartet finally delivered the road map document to Sharon, the Palestinian negotiators led by Abbas, and Arafat. Creating a prime minister’s post was the first of a long list of Palestinian obligations. Now it is Israel’s turn to answer the question consuming the Palestinian public: with Abu Mazen ensconced, will Israel finally open the roads and checkpoints to Palestinian traffic?

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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