The End of the Abbas Era?

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November 6, 2009

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will not seek re-election. Abu Mazen said that decision is final. What brings him to this decision now and what does it mean for the future relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, the USA, Hamas and the peace process more broadly?

The Immediate Consequences

It’s not exactly clear what this announcement means for the near term, or whether events might not cause Abbas to recant his decision.

Abbas did not resign as president, but said he would not seek re-election. Elections are, in fact, scheduled for January 24, 2010, but many observers are not convinced they are actually going to happen. Hamas has already refused to participate in elections; it is unlikely that Palestinian elections that would have any legitimacy could be carried out without Hamas’ cooperation. Any meaningful elections would have to include Gaza.

Thus, it may be some time before the elections the Palestinian leader will not run in would even happen. In the interim, however, the result of his proclamation is to put Abbas into a position where nothing can realistically be asked of him.

American pressure has been intensifying for Abbas to agree to negotiations without a settlement freeze. Abbas’ decision, as long as it holds, means that the urgency for negotiations is thrown into question. The Americans must now decide: do they want to push even harder for negotiations before Abbas leaves office, or do they stop pressuring him entirely, as his lame duck status renders him a useless interlocutor?

Either attitude from Washington gives Abbas more flexibility and a stronger position from which to demand American pressure on Israel. His resignation is decidedly unwelcome in Washington, as there is no replacement for him that the Americans are familiar with, trust, and, unlike possible American choices like Salam Fayyad or Mohammed Dahlan, would also carry any popular weight at all among the Palestinians. The only viable option, Marwan Barghouti, sits in an Israeli jail and isn’t likely to be released any time soon.

The US would therefore be inclined to grant Abbas more cooperation if they think they can convince him to stay. This gives him some bargaining power. If they decide to intensify their pressure on Abbas before he leaves, the US would again have to employ more carrots than sticks. So again, Abbas has more leverage.

What Led to This Decision?

Abu Mazen is 74 years old. It’s possible he’s simply frustrated and has had enough. In this case, there isn’t a lot to read into his decision to not seek reelection, and there’s little chance Abbas will reconsider, either.

But let’s assume that’s not it, that Abbas has a strategic reason for doing this, whether as a bluff or for real.

Only a day before Abu Mazen’s announcement, Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s chief negotiator, turned up the volume on the one-state threat. “Successive Israeli governments have destroyed any chance of reaching a two-state solution,” Erekat said. “The Palestinian Authority must start searching for other options… including the option of a one-state solution.”

The timing may not be coincidental. If the PLO leadership adopts such a view, popular support for it in the Occupied Territories is likely to rise quickly. The view will be shaped by the logic that Israel insists that settlements can’t be halted, so what other choice is there? Coming only a day before Abbas’ announcement, this may be designed to scare both the American negotiators and the Israeli public about the chances remaining for a two-state solution.

More than that, Abbas’ resignation, sincere or tactical, is an expression of frustration. However, while Abbas’ public statements have been directed largely at Israel and Hamas, the real target of this move is the United States.

Lost Patience With Obama

Abu Mazen had previously expressed his disappointment at the United States, and with good reason. American pressure forced him to withdraw the Palestinian petition to the UN Human Rights Council on the Goldstone Report. And, though it was later re-submitted, this move essentially destroyed the already shaky credibility Abbas had. He was seen as a toady who would sell out on any response to what Palestinians see as a massacre, in order to appease the US and Israel.

President Obama had previously embarrassed Abu Mazen by forcing him to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN in September, and has been increasing the pressure on him to commence negotiations with Israel despite the Israeli refusal of any meaningful curb on settlement activity. Combined with his complete inability to ease the situation in Gaza, Abbas was put in an impossible position by American demands.

Obama is correctly perceived as the American President historically most concerned about the Palestinians’ plight. But he still has a long way to go in understanding Palestinian politics, and his good intentions have led, in fact, to a very difficult situation for Abbas.

Israel has dug in its heels and will make no concessions without more from the PA. Abbas is looking at the massive security effort, which has also cost him domestically, as well as the efforts at institution-building by his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and sees that he has gotten only the removal of some obstacles in the West Bank for these efforts.

On the Hamas side, the group itself continues to experience low support, in both Gaza and the West Bank. They’re not really gaining from Fatah’s losses. Yet their argument, that the path of negotiations is futile, is gaining a great deal of credibility. This, as well as Israel’s tough stance can only be enhanced by Abbas’ resignation, both after he’s gone and during the interim period, however long that might be.

From Israel, Hamas and the US, Abbas is feeling pressure and seeing little relief. That explains his decision, whether it is simply to quit because it’s hopeless, or because it is a desperate attempt to change the parameters of the game.

From Partner to Interlocutor

The circumstances Abu Mazen finds himself cornered by arise from two factors: the comparative powerlessness of the Palestinians and the role of “peace partner.” The former circumstance is a reality that the Palestinians, whoever their leader is, simply have to deal with.

The latter circumstance can be changed, though. The whole concept of a “partner for peace” was flawed from the beginning. Partners do not make peace agreements, but peace agreements do forge partnerships. One of the major problems in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been this placement of the cart before the horse.

Just look at the two conflicts to which the Israeli-Palestinian one is compared (in my view, incorrectly) most often, South Africa and Northern Ireland. Peace agreements were reached between the belligerents, often through very difficult processes, and after that, the two sides worked together to rebuild their countries. Major problems remain; peace is not utopia. But things are better now, and that should be the goal in the Middle East.

The current tactic of the Obama Administration – an attempt to rekindle bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians – should be abandoned. And the characterization of the Palestinian leadership as a “partner for peace” for Israel should be likewise relegated to the dustbin. If Abbas’ departure hastens such changes, it will be a very positive development for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

What needs to happen is that a strong but pragmatic Palestinian leadership must emerge. It should be strong enough to combat terrorism, but should be primarily concerned with Palestinian security, not Israeli. That’s Israel’s job.

That leadership’s strength should also guide it in dealing with the Israelis. They should approach it not as a partner, but as Israel does—as a belligerent, pursuing its own interests, trying to end the conflict on the best terms possible for its own side. Mix that with healthy pragmatism and capable American mediation, and we might actually get somewhere hopeful.

Such a Palestinian leadership can help create a unified position that can be backed by the governments of key Arab states, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It can also begin, and maybe even succeed, in healing the breach between the West Bank and Gaza.

But it must not be a partner with Israel before an agreement is reached to end the occupation. This is also why Hamas or other rejectionist groups are not viable alternatives (aside from their violent actions and frightening ideologies). A Palestinian leadership must be willing to work for the interests of its own people, cooperate with the United States and be prepared, once an agreement is reached, to be a partner in peace with Israel. That partnership must be born of an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian governments pursuing their own respective interests. The United States can then play an effective brokering role.

Abbas is now seen, rightly, as someone who has gotten much to cozy in his position of “moderate” and “partner for peace.” If he is sincere about resigning, it may well cause the collapse of the PA. Whether or not that happens, Israel and the United States must be prepared to encourage a new, more independent-minded, yet still pragmatic Palestinian leadership to emerge. The alternatives are a new version of Abbas and his ineffectiveness or Hamas. The path forward between those choices seems clear.

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