Palestinian affairs: Summits aside

It's unlikely that Abbas will be able to get support among his people for any US-backed deal with Israel.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A Palestinian leader who feels safer in Jerusalem, Paris and Washington than in Nablus and Jenin will never be able to deliver. This is how a senior Fatah official in Ramallah reacted to this week's summit in Jerusalem between PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two leaders are said to have discussed, for the first time in seven years, "core" issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the final borders of the future Palestinian state and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world. The last time Abbas was seen in Jenin, Nablus or other West Bank cities was on the eve of the January 2005 presidential election. Then, he toured many areas in the West Bank to seek the support of voters. Earlier this month, he visited Jericho, but only to meet with Olmert in a hotel located on the southern outskirts of the sleepy town. In recent months, especially after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, some Palestinians have been referring to Abbas jokingly as the mayor of Ramallah, since the only time he leaves the city is when he travels abroad. A visit to Nablus or a refugee camp in the West Bank remains out of the question, mainly for "security reasons," as one of his aides said this week. The defeat of Abbas's security forces in the Gaza Strip last June has seriously undermined his standing and credibility among many of his constituents. Not that he enjoyed much popularity before the Hamas "coup." But today, Abbas is also facing many challenges inside Fatah, with some hinting at a behind-the-scenes power struggle to succeed him. In fact, Abbas has been a great disappointment to many of his erstwhile supporters, particularly since he stepped into Yasser Arafat's big shoes in January 2005. In his pre-election campaign, Abbas promised his people that he would wage a relentless war against financial corruption and anarchy. He also promised to bring good governance and build proper state institutions. In addition, he pledged to reform his Fatah faction and to allow the younger leaders a larger say in decision-making. But after one year, Hamas came to power mainly because Abbas had failed to fulfill most of his promises. Hamas found fertile soil among many disgruntled Palestinians who were clearly disappointed with Abbas's failure to deliver. Instead of fighting corruption, Abbas surrounded himself with many of the corrupt leaders who had served under Arafat. And instead of making a serious effort to end the state of anarchy and lawlessness on the Palestinian street, Abbas did nothing to stop militiamen and gangsters (most of whom belonged to Fatah and PA security forces) from terrorizing the Palestinian public. Abbas continued to do nothing even after Hamas came to power in January 2006. Instead of drawing the conclusions from the defeat of Fatah and working toward reforming the faction, he and his aides chose to devote almost all of their time to searching for ways to remove Hamas from power. When they failed to achieve their goal, Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants followed the saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." This policy resulted in the formation of the fake and short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity government earlier this year. As commander-in-chief of the PA security forces, Abbas bears the full responsibility for Hamas's violent takeover of the entire Gaza Strip. Yet no one in the Palestinian media in Ramallah, which is directly and indirectly controlled by Abbas's office, has dared to demand that he be held accountable. Moreover, calls by young guard Fatah operatives to reform the faction and get rid of icons of corruption have mostly been ignored by the PA-funded media. ABBAS MAY be sincere in his efforts to talk peace with Israel and assert his control over the West Bank, but it's hard to imagine that he would be able to make crucial decisions on explosive issues concerning Jerusalem and the refugees. It's hard to imagine that he would be able to accept anything less than what was offered to Arafat at the botched Camp David summit in 2000. Having lost the Gaza Strip and much of his credibility - not only among his constituents, but also among many Arabs and Muslims elsewhere - it's not even clear if Abbas has a mandate to represent the Palestinians at the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference due to be held later this year. Abbas is well-aware of this fact, which is why he announced this week that he would hold a national referendum on any agreement he reaches with Israel. Given the current divisions among the Palestinians, the ongoing Hamas-Fatah power struggle, the growing mistrust of the US and Israel in the Arab world and Abbas's shaky status, it is highly unlikely that the PA chairman would be able to win the backing of a majority of his people for a US- backed deal.