Palestinian Authority: Mirror image

Threatened by his slipping grip and shrinking power base, Abbas is stepping into Arafat's shoes.

Several Fatah operatives in Jerusalem were surprised over the past week when they received phone calls from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warning them against running as independents in next month's parliamentary elections. The threats came at the peak of the power struggle in the ruling Fatah party, which saw jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti forming his own list to contest the vote together with "young guard" activists. "Anyone who dares to run as an independent will be kicked out of Fatah," Abbas's aides reportedly told the Fatah activists. "We will also see to it that dissidents don't receive jobs and money." One of the activists who received such a phone call from Abbas's office later commented: "These threats remind us of the methods that were used by Yasser Arafat and the former regime to suppress critics. Abu Mazen [Abbas] is proving to be exactly like Arafat." Indeed, an increasing number of Palestinians in general, and Fatah activists in particular, have begun noticing behavioral patterns in Abbas reminiscent of those of his predecessor. They say that the split in Fatah, fears of Hamas making a strong showing in the parliamentary election and growing chaos in the Palestinian territories have taken their toll on Abbas's performance. "The man is in an unenviable state," said one of Abbas's top aides. "He's under attack from all directions - the old guard and the young guard [in Fatah], Hamas, Israel, the US, the European Union and many Palestinians who hold him responsible for the ongoing anarchy." Yet Abbas's main problem remains his failure to fulfill most of the promises he made to voters before he was elected to succeed Arafat last January. Even worse, his critics note, Abbas appears to have endorsed many of Arafat's tactics, such as issuing threats against political rivals and adopting a conciliatory approach toward militiamen. Arafat used to maintain direct contact with Fatah militiamen in the West Bank, often chatting with them over the phone and inviting them to stay inside the safe premises of his headquarters in Ramallah. When top Fatah gunman Zakariya Zubeidi and his friends kidnapped the former governor of Jenin three years ago, Arafat personally phoned Zubeidi and asked him to release the man. Many senior Fatah gunmen used to boast that they had been given Arafat's private cellphone number so that they could talk to him any time they wanted. NOW ABBAS is employing the same methods. Last week, for instance, he personally phoned the commander of a Fatah gang that occupied the Bethlehem Municipality building. The attackers, who were demanding jobs and money, said they agreed to evacuate the place after receiving assurances from Abbas that their demands would be met soon. Abbas has also been making similar phone calls to other Fatah militiamen who have raided public institutions or kidnapped foreigners in the Gaza Strip over the past few weeks. This policy of negotiating with law-breakers has drawn sharp criticism from many Palestinians, who accuse Abbas of succumbing to violence instead of fighting to impose law and order. Some Palestinians, such as Gaza legislator Rawya al-Shawwa, have openly condemned as "harmful" and "disgraceful" Abbas's strategy of negotiating with kidnappers and armed thugs. Scenes of Fatah gunmen storming public institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have become part of the norm. Until now, not a single gunman has been arrested for participating in the attacks, despite "stiff orders" from Abbas to his security forces to end lawlessness. The gunmen who took over Bethlehem's city hall and kicked out all its employees were permitted to walk away without being detained or questioned. In the Gaza Strip, where kidnappings of foreigners have also become routine, the perpetrators are often rewarded with jobs and money on the instructions of Abbas. The latest fiasco in Fatah also shows Abbas behaving much like his predecessor. In fact, the crisis was triggered by his refusal to endorse the results of a democratic vote held by Fatah to choose its candidates for the parliamentary election. Before the primary election, Abbas said he would honor the results regardless of who wins. But when it became clear that Barghouti and representatives of the "young guard" had defeated old-timers and former Arafat cronies, Abbas changed his mind under the pretext that the results were non-binding. Finally, he decided to handpick his own candidates, just as Arafat did for nearly four decades. In the first parliamentary elections in 1996, which were hailed by the international community as "free and democratic," Arafat personally nominated the Fatah candidates and decided who could run and who couldn't. After the results were announced, Arafat ordered some winners replaced because their loyalty to him was in question. ON OTHER fronts, too, Abbas seems to have adopted some of Arafat's "fatherly" tactics. In recent weeks, the Palestinian media has been full of items reporting that "His Excellency" was handing out "presidential honorariums" to individuals and institutions. Under Arafat, such handouts were used to buy loyalty and stability. Almost anyone who sent a letter to Arafat requesting financial assistance was referred to the Palestinian Finance Ministry to receive an honorarium. At the ministry, senior officials would demand a certain commission for their "services." This is how hundreds of millions of dollars are believed to have disappeared. By endorsing the honorarium strategy, Abbas has angered many Palestinian reformists, including former finance minister Salam Fayyad, who reportedly resigned in protest against the way his boss was (mis)handling PA finances. Abbas's decision to resume payments to some Fatah militiamen has also raised many eyebrows. Last week, Palestinian journalists were once again reminded that the concept of a free media remains an alien phenomenon even under Abbas. As was the case during Arafat's days, the Palestinian media remains under the tight grip of the Palestinian leadership, which has always displayed intolerance toward criticism and independent thinking. When a public opinion poll published last week indicated that Barghouti's breakaway list would make a strong showing in the parliamentary elections, Abbas's office instructed some Palestinian newspapers to drop the story. Some Palestinians argue that the real problem is not Abbas, but the veteran PLO leaders and former Arafat cronies who continue to play a major role in decision-making. Abbas, they say, is sincere about bringing about real changes and reforming the PA, but he is unable to move ahead as long as he is surrounded by "wolves." Many Palestinians are now saying that their support for Hamas should be seen as a vote of protest against the corrupt Palestinian leadership. Less than a month before parliamentary elections, all indications are that Abbas's Fatah is headed for disaster. That's why many Fatah leaders, including Abbas, are praying for a miracle that would provide them with a good excuse to postpone the vote. Their biggest hope is that Israel will launch a major military offensive just before the election or ban Arab residents of Jerusalem from voting. As one senior Fatah put it this week, "It would look better in the eyes of the world if we could hold Israel responsible for disrupting the democratic process."