Round and round the Oslo circle – where it stops, nobody knows

It seems no small irony that Ahmad Qrei’, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo accords, is now tasked with creating and leading a new Palestinian cabinet exactly ten years after that very first peace agreement was signed on September 13, 1993. As the outside world lauds the man known as "Abu Ala’" for his commitment to the peace process, Palestinians survey this scenery grimly. The appointment of Qrei’ has saved them from the precipice promised by an end to the negotiations process, but it has not rescued them from the task of reclaiming an endangered and confused national cause.

"Israel is the main terror in our area," avers Jerusalem Palestinian Legislative Council member Hatem Abdul Qader. "Maybe Abu Ala’ can do something. Otherwise, he is chasing [down] a closed road."

Early in the Intifada, a Western journalist remarked on President Yasser Arafat’s political genius: "He knows that the only way to solve the rifts of Oslo is to make the insiders and the ‘Tunisians’ go through an uprising together." But the incomplete manner that this latest internal power crisis and the impasse with Israel has been settled – through the selection of Qrei’ – shows that even after three years of terrible losses, the intra-Palestinian enmity between the previously "external" and "internal" political leadership persists, and despite the proven failings of the Oslo agreements, the assumptions of those accords remain valid political currency. "I have the feeling that we will only solve our problem once we have made our way through the ‘Abus’," says one man, his barb aimed at the aging and fraternal political leadership. Even those who express relief at the appointment of Qrei (whose qualifications are listed by one political figure as experience at negotiations a! nd "dealing with Arafat") do so in the spirit of healing open wounds.

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is being afforded similar kid gloves. "Mahmoud Abbas is still an important leader in Fateh and the Palestinian Liberation Organization," says Abdul Qader. "He will be back at another time." Still, very few are lamenting his demise as prime minister. Those who had believed that Abbas might be serious about reform, the euphemism that Palestinians understand as the undoing of the corruption and patronage that has often characterized the Palestinian Authority, were disinherited of that notion when the number two in the Palestine Liberation Organization presented his first cabinet picks. Those who wondered about Abbas’ political acumen were duly apprised by his head-to-head attempt to challenge Arafat. The final blow was the death kiss of an eager United States.

"We are not selecting candidates for the position of Palestinian Prime Minister," US Secretary of State Colin Powell dissembled to the press. "This is something that the Palestinian people have to do through the Palestinian Legislative Council." But the US consul in Jerusalem contacted key members of the Palestinian Legislative Council prior to an expected vote of confidence with the message that any vote against Mahmoud Abbas would be a vote against the United States. That message was carried to the public by none other than then-Council Speaker Ahmad Qrei, who announced that a vote of confidence would not be part of council proceedings.

And so the tide of resistance to Abbas and his public breach with both the beleaguered Palestinian president and the traditional principles of the Palestinian cause were expressed in other ways. One man, normally apolitical, taped a photo of Arafat to the back of his car. "Ordinary people observe the recent developments against the president with profound opposition," said PLO Central Committee member Abbas Zaki. "They sense that there is a process of not abiding by the law." Mahmoud Abbas’ opponents accused him of assigning more powers to his security chief than those granted by law.

But the lawbreaking was also bilateral. After the prime minister had entered the Legislative Council on September 5 to present a plea to both Israel and Palestinians to "give me power or let me go," masked members of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades arrived at the Council headquarters and proceeded to smash windows and paint graffiti calling the prime minister (not so long ago selected by the Brigade’s own political umbrella, Fateh) a collaborator with Israel. The final resignation came one day later, but an aide to Abbas says that it resulted from no last pitched battle; the thought had been turning in Abbas’ mind for days. As of this writing, Abbas and Arafat have not spoken to each other for just over two weeks.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all (for how often was it conveyed that Abbas was mandatory to both American and Israeli designs?), the sky did not fall in when his resignation went through. The Palestinian leadership seemed well-advised of this when Arafat received Abbas’ letter of resignation delivered by Minister of Cabinet Affairs Yasser Abed Rabbo. "The Americans know it won’t work," said one official, also citing unstated differences between Abbas and the US administration. "They wanted him only as long as he was viable." Indeed, the US threats seemed to have a literal interpretation: as long as there was no embarrassing vote out of office, the roadmap process would continue. That this process has now devaluated into an Israeli all-out war on any cogent Hamas leadership, and Hamas’ angry attempts to fight back, means little in political speak. Qrei’, the architect of Oslo, is now in charge, and the roadmap thus goes on.

"I know the situation and the status of transformation from a revolution to a civil society or a state or whatever you want to call it," said Qrei in a 1999 interview. "In revolution, it is necessary – like in the military – to put most of the power in one man." He listed the Legislative Council’s various duties and then went on. "What has been achieved up ’til now – I think – is very important."

In ten years, Palestinians have not yet achieved either civil society or a state or even "whatever you want to call it." The offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization have transformed into the Palestinian Authority, a stunted government rendered incapable by Israel’s slow bleeding of its facilities and by its own failings. Israel’s wall forms the final barrier for those who hoped that the 1967 borders would prove their only remaining compromise. Today, there are no lack of Palestinians asking themselves if Palestinian national goals will be able to rise above the breach that broke open inside the movement when the PLO agreed to come home before there was a home to return to. The recent statements of Israeli government officials are a taunt over just how easy it is to send them back.