Taking charge of things

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not in a comfortable position these days. He seems like a nice, fatherly figure in not so nice a neighbourhood. He heads a party (or a movement) which has last held a congress of its activists more than 15 years ago.

He is caught between old leaders, most of whom came to Palestine from abroad, and new leaders who had been part of the Intifada. He is the commander in chief who is unable to secure and protect the Central Election Commission offices. He has an Israeli counterpart who pays little attention to him despite his repeated position against the militarisation of the Intifada.

He has to deal with hardline Islamic groups who are caught in a cycle of violence with the Israeli army that doesn’t seem to have any purpose or an end in sight but which certainly serves the hardliners in Israel.

Within Fateh, Abbas is unable to enforce party discipline. He agreed to primaries but had to cancel them in Gaza and Qalqilya when militants from Fateh were unhappy with the way the process was going. In some areas, the primaries were cancelled but then they were back on. He promised that he would honour the results of the primaries, but that he will make the final decision. He asked to have the right to choose the top ten on the Fateh list, then he asked to have the right to choose the top five, in the end he was unable to insist on a single Fateh list as two lists (both headed by Barghouthi) were submitted.

On the security level, he has failed the Palestinian public who has yet to see any serious attempt to put an end to the lawlessness that has prevailed, especially in Gaza. A day before the deadline for nominations, the front page of Al Quds showed a photo of masked men, connected to his own party’s Al Aqsa Brigades, taking over the Central Elections Commission offices, in Gaza, taking out the computers into the street in a clear sign of defiance to his and the PA’s security. It was not the first act of its kind. This sort of thuggery has been going on for some time. Few, if any, have been arrested, charged or imprisoned.

With the Islamic groups Abu Mazen has failed to rein them in despite help from the Egyptians. The Cairo agreement for a long period of quiet is about to run out and although it seems that at least Hamas will extend the tahdiaa (quiet), Islamic Jihad and the Israeli army seem bent on an extended fight which doesn’t seem to be connected to any clear and tangible results.

Sure, Jihad, like most Palestinians, would like to end the occupation, but it is not clear how their haphazard actions and retaliations will produce that. Nor is it clear what the Israelis want since they clearly know that there is no military solution here. Palestinians have often argued that the higher Palestinian interest must be respected and in this area, the most recent public opinion poll shows a clear Palestinian majority in favour of the continuation of the quiet. Abu Mazen is not able or willing to do much more than arrest a few junior Islamic Jihad activists.

While the problems within Fateh and the lack of security are exposing Abbas’ weakness, these problems pale in comparison to the problems he has with the Israelis. His election by the Palestinian people on a peace platform has done little to convince the Sharon government that there indeed are partners on the Palestinian side.

Abbas has been unable to get any substantive concession from the Israelis, be it regarding checkpoints, the release of the thousands of prisoners held without court or trial or even to have the Israelis meet him face to face. The Israelis have continued their unilateral actions and their refusal to even agree on the basis of a ceasefire. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza without ever meeting a senior Palestinian official. Even the permission for the limited opening of the Rafah crossing only occurred a few months later, and after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to put her reputation on the line. That US-Israel-Palestine Agreement is causing problems to the Israelis who have refused to allow a caravan of busses to transport Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank and back, as agreed upon on Dec. 15. A senior Israeli source told this writer that they are under pressure to honour that portion of the agreement because it has the signature of the US. He said that barring any attacks, the Gaza-West Bank caravan might be permitted to operate by the first of the year.

For Palestinians, and especially for Fateh activists, Jan. 1 is an important date because it marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Fateh. If indeed the caravan is allowed passage then, it will be a small gift to Abbas before the Jan. 25 legislative elections. He, however, can’t depend on small gifts here and there. The time has come for him to establish himself as head of the Fateh movement, as the commander in chief of the Palestinian forces and as the Palestinian representative in bilateral and multilateral talks.

While there are many issues that can and should be delegated, issues of national security and negotiations are the domain of the president. If he doesn’t take charge in areas that the average Palestinian can see, he will soon be bypassed by a younger, more assertive leaders.

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