Abbas faces a mission impossible

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Mahmoud Abbas heads off to the United States this week for dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama at the White House.

Days later, Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, stalled for more than 10 years, begin in the US. No serious effort has been exerted in this direction – despite all the loud talk at the Annapolis conference by the former George W Bush administration. That conference in November 2007 brought Abbas together with then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and a host of Arab and

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European leaders who set the end of Bush’s term, January 2009, as a deadline for agreement on a two-state solution.

Earlier, US president Bill Clinton had been unable to hammer out a sustainable peace. Obama, however, appears both able and willing, but faces an reluctant Israeli prime minister and an incapable Palestinian one.

Whether these talks succeed or collapse, this will probably be the last task for the aging Palestinian leader, also known as Abu Mazen. At 75, Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) since November 2004, is ailing and an increasingly unpopular figure in the Palestinian street.

A series of setbacks has rocked his presidency since he succeeded his boss, Yasser Arafat, in 2004. It started with a political rift with Hamas, the grassroots Islamic party that swept parliamentary elections in 2006 and which since June 2007 has governed the Gaza portion of the Palestinian Territories. Abbas had tried to disarm the group in 2003, when serving as prime minister under Arafat, creating a permanent rift with Palestinian guerrillas from different ends of the political spectrum.

Abbas was never a fan of armed resistance – even when it was celebrated in the 1970s and 1980s – always projecting himself as a moderate civilian politician keen on diplomacy rather than armed confrontation. However, his image was severely tarnished when in 2007 Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, dividing the already amputated Palestinian Territories in two.

The Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009 did not break Hamas‘ power, much to Abbas’ displeasure. Abbas tried to drown the high-profile United Nations report blaming Israel for the war, further tarnishing his image among ordinary Palestinians who increasingly saw him as an American stooge.

Hamas now claims that Abbas is an illegal president with no mandate to rule from the Palestinian people and therefore no authority to engage in any peace talks with Israel. Abbas’ presidential term expired in January 2009, but he unilaterally extended it for another year and remains in office although that year too has also expired.

Hamas has refused to recognize this extension, claiming that Abbas is not entitled to debate sensitive issues related to the future of Jerusalem, final borders, security and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas has no war medals on his neatly pressed Western suit, making it very difficult – if not impossible – for him to make any concessions on peace, and get away with it before ordinary Palestinians.

Making peace needs decorated war heroes – Arafat would not have been able go to Oslo in 1993 without having led the Palestinian resistance for 30 years. Otherwise, he would have been labeled as a traitor by his own people. Arafat was a man who could take decisions, and bear the consequences. He would say: “Only this hand [waving his right hand], can sign a peace treaty with Israel!”

If Abbas decides to make concessions to Israel, and signs a flawed peace treaty, he risks being killed by an extremist Palestinian. Precisely by his death, Arafat has marked the “red lines” of Palestinian politics. What he did not concede during his lifetime nobody will be able to give after his death: abandoning Jerusalem as the capital of the “State of Palestine”, and the right of return for refugees.

Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and Arafat friend, once wrote: “If you are a Palestinian in Jenin [in the West Bank] with a rifle, and you hear their names [Abbas and his team], your reaction is: ‘Who are these guys anyway? Who are they to tell me what to do?’ Their authority will be superficial.”

Although on the surface Arafat seemed to quarrel with Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, they respected Arafat and listened to him – something that does not happen with Abbas. Also, while post-Arafat leaders of Palestine travel around in black-tinted automobiles, and are always surrounded by heavy security, Arafat always showed up with the masses. Arafat had the looks of a resistance leader. Scruffy, always in khaki military uniform, and always with a revolver buckled on his side, he was the perfect mirror of his people’s image and revolution. Abbas is not like that.

For weeks, Hamas has been whipping up massive anti-peace talks demonstrations in Gaza, supported by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). It claims that no peace talks should take place unless the Israeli siege of Gaza is completely lifted, settlements are dismantled and real reconciliation takes place between Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas.

That position is supported by Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey and naturally other Palestinian factions which are not members of Abbas’ PNA. How can Abbas speak for the Palestinians, Hamas leaders ask, when at best the Palestinian president only represents 50% of the Palestinian street?

For his part, Abbas has conditioned his participation in the Obama-sponsored talks on Israel abiding by a freeze on settlements in the West Bank. A 10-month freeze currently holds, and will expire at midnight on September 26, two days before the ninth anniversary of the famous al-Aqsa (second) intifada – the second Palestinian uprising.

If Israel continues its settlement policies, Abbas has threatened to walk out on the talks, explaining why Obama has pushed both parties to reaching concrete steps ahead of September 26, thereby making it difficult for Abbas to distance himself from the peace process.

The main question is: can such an unpopular president deliver peace? The Israelis are clearly humoring Obama in the peace talks, uninterested in hammering out a sustainable peace with the Palestinians. Obama’s promises of Palestinian statehood at his famous speech in Cairo in the summer of 2009 raised red flags in Israel.

Hardliners in the Netanyahu administration accused him of taking sides with the Arabs when he came close to saying: “Read my lips: no new settlements!” Earlier this year, the Israelis threw sand in the eyes of US peacemakers by announcing preparations to build 1,600 new settlements in the Palestinian Territories.

Netanyahu appears to be playing with Obama, going along with his flawed peace process ahead of the November congressional elections in the US that are expected to produce a Democratic Party defeat.

Obama desperately needs a success story in the Middle East, and so does Abbas. Netanyahu, however, knows what it takes to produce peace and realizes that his lack of interest and Abbas’ likely inability to deliver will soon send the talks into history, like so many failed attempts at peace in the Middle East since the Madrid Peace Conference kicked off 20 years ago.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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