Too big a risk

It’s certainly possible. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) always intended to serve as Palestinian president for a relatively short period of time and then pass the torch to the next generation. He has never sought power and prestige; in his day he resigned from the post of prime minister and, before that, from his positions in the PLO. He won’t hold onto power at all costs. He also knows that a leader who threatens to resign must prepare to carry out his threat, and he is preparing. Anyone who tries to dissuade him is reminded by him that no one, himself included, is getting any younger.

The Palestinian situation is extremely problematic. The Palestinian Authority is torn between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and it is difficult to see the rift being healed. Hamas appears to be consolidating its rule in Gaza and it doesn’t dream of holding elections or allowing any other innovation that offers the prospect of removing it from power. The Palestinian parliament is not functioning, and if it were it would topple the government in Ramallah. That government exists by virtue of a directive; the faction headed by the prime minister won all of two mandates in the last elections and has ceased to exist. Abu Mazen, who was elected for four years, is now in his fifth, based on a controversial interpretation of the temporary constitution.

Still, the PA is headed by two valuable leaders who have gained the world’s admiration and have succeeded in providing their public with relative prosperity under complicated conditions. Abu Mazen, one of the founders of the PLO, presents a courageous and consistent position: the national interests of the Palestinian people will be secured through peace and good neighborly relations with Israel. Dr. Salam Fayyad is an economist with international experience who knows how to work with the world’s financial institutions but also with his own public. In recent years, he has taken on the tasks of defense minister and managed to instill law and order in the West Bank.

The two know how to work together, even if here and there we hear about tensions between them. Neither is a charismatic leader. Yet if real leadership is measured by providing the most opportunities possible to the public under given conditions, we can state that these are leaders the Palestinian public can be proud of.

They are under tremendous pressure. Fateh activists want them to appoint Fateh people to various institutions. Hamas claims they are not legitimate while also demanding that they cut all ties with Israel. The latter demands even more security and political cooperation while the Americans insist they abandon all preconditions for peace talks. Both leaders have long been pondering the possibility of stepping aside; if it happens, it will not be a big surprise.

Nobody is indispensable, they say. But just because somebody replaces somebody else doesn’t mean that he/she is a good replacement who can carry out the same tasks. The Abu Mazen/Salam Fayyad duo is unique in what it can give the Palestinian public, and is not easily replaceable. Quite a few people would like to take over their functions–yet some of these would turn their backs on the chance to effect an historic rapprochement with Israel, thereby causing heavy damage on both sides, while others would reverse the wheels of economic progress in the PA, back to the dark ages of backroom licenses and commissions. A combination of political refusal and economic corruption is the danger confronting the Palestinians if these two leave the political stage in the near future.

The resignation threat presents a real danger because there is no other Palestinian leader on the horizon who can enjoy the same international prestige and try to lead his public to an agreement with Israel. If Abu Mazen tells President Barack Obama he is considering resigning, the American leader should not consider this an empty threat. It would constitute a blow to his administration’s regional policies following long months of wasted time and empty maneuvers.

Of course, it’s possible that this writer is mistaken. Conceivably, Abu Mazen will not run again for president and Salam Fayyad will not remain prime minister and they will be replaced by young and vigorous leaders who strive for peace as well as for law, order and an economy free of corruption. Perhaps I don’t see these alternative leaders because they are currently hidden by those in power. But I fear that at this point in time the risk is too big for all those who believe in a diplomatic solution and who think the West Bank model is better than the Gaza model.