Does Abbas have any serious alternatives?

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Successful strategies that produce results require the executor of such strategies to have alternatives. Traditionally, the Palestinian struggle for liberation has tried to use political and military methods as alternatives to each other. So when Palestinians were fighting using violent tactics, they waived the political stream in favour of the military one.

Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, these two options alternated even though they took different versions. At times the politics was done by proxy, whether by Arab countries or non-PLO Palestinians. The military option also varied, from cross-border attacks on Israeli soldiers to assassinations of Israeli officials and, at various times, a series of attacks against civilians, whether foreigners or Israeli. The latter resulted in Palestinians often being labelled as terrorists.

The first and second Intifadas can be probably classified as military alternatives (even though the first was much less militaristic). So can the rocket attacks from Gaza that started after the Israeli unilateral withdrawal, which was quickly followed by an illegal and crippling Israeli land, air and sea blockade and siege of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Political efforts have included attempts to get the UN to move things, with little result in the form of any binding UN Security Council resolutions, international peace conferences like Madrid and Annapolis, or bilateral and trilateral meetings, such as Oslo, Washington, Wye River and Camp David.

The death of Arafat and the arrival of Mahmoud Abbas onto the political arena brought an end to the difficult exercise of choosing between political and military. Abbas spoke out publicly and enacted policies against what he called the militarisation of the Intifada. He blasted what he called the amateur rockets coming out of Gaza and brought discipline to the lightly armed Palestinian security forces.

Abbas made it clear that he is putting all his eggs in the political basket and pinning his hopes on the US and the international community. Internally, Abbas relinquished day-to-day policies to an able and effective prime minister who was able to reverse the stigma of terrorism on Palestinians, spending time building up the future Palestinian state rather than curse the Israeli occupation.

For some time, it seemed that Abbas’ strategy was working. The world supported the Palestinian cause and direction, America had a much more pro-active president and the Israeli Likud leader was publicly supporting the two-state solution, with the majority of Israelis behind him.

But the strategy appears to be stumbling, and exactly when Abbas needed a strong and serious alternative to encourage the Israelis to continue on the path of peace, he discovered he has none.

True, at the recent 6th Fateh congress Abbas spoke with conviction about the need to use popular, non-violent struggle as a way to force the Israelis to be honest in the talks. Some Fateh cadres went alone and participated in peaceful marches in Bilin, Nabi Saleh and other locations, but it was not part of a serious, well-thought-out and long-term non-violent strategy. Some of the participants in these popular demonstrations privately joked about how the Fateh leaders come to these events in their brand-ne? jeeps or Mercedes cars and spend a few minutes (enough time for the cameras to document their presence) and then leave.

The arrest of Abbas Zaki, a central committee member of Fateh, on Palm Sunday was unusual, leaving the Israelis and the Fateh leaders confused as to how to end that problem. He was released after several days and given a hero’s welcome in Hebron.

Israel’s refusal to commit on an extension to the moratorium on settlement activity, and America’s inability to make it do so, finally brought home to Abbas the problem of having all his eggs in the political, and the American, baskets.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Palestinian leader is giving lip service to the fact that he has four alternatives (and possibly a fifth secret one), but in reality his alternatives have no teeth. Abbas will not dissolve the Palestinian Authority and cannot resign because the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, belonging to Hamas, would legally be in charge for 60 days until elections take place.

Going to the UN with the US veto possibility renders this avenue useless. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building strategy will not be ready until the summer of 2011, and work on the Palestinian airport, which has been planned in areas C under total Israeli control, cannot take place without the approval of the occupier.

In reality, Abbas has very few (if any) choices. So despite the talk about alternatives, the best choice he has is to live in Washington and not return phone calls until after the mid-term elections.

In the meantime, there is no harm in debating the potential alternatives that Palestinians have if the present process continues to falter after the mid-term elections, and after finding a solution to the settlement obstacle.

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