Abbas - lead, or be pushed aside

For Abu Mazen, being a father figure is not enough.

abbas dyspeptic 88 (photo credit: )
abbas dyspeptic 88
(photo credit: )
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is not in a comfortable position these days. He seems like a nice guy, fatherly figure, but in a not so nice neighborhood. He heads a party (or a movement) which last held a congress of its activists more than 15 years ago. Abbas is caught between old leaders who came to Palestine and new leaders who lived their whole lives here. He is a commander in chief who is unable to secure the central election commission offices. He has an Israeli counterpart who pays little attention to him despite his repeated opposition to the militarization of the intifada. He has hard line Islamic groups who are caught in a cycle of violence with the Israeli army, one that does not seem to have any purpose or an end in sight but which certainly serves the hardliners in Israel. Within Fatah, Abbas is unable to enforce party discipline. He agreed to primaries but had to cancel them in Gaza and Kalkilya when Fatah militants were unhappy with the way the process was going. In some areas the primaries were cancelled and restored. He promised that he would honor the results of the primaries but that the final decision would rest with him. He asked to have the right to choose the top ten on the Fatah list, then he asked to have the right to choose the top five and he was unable to insist on a single Fatah list as two lists (both headed by Barghouti) were submitted. On the security level he has failed the Palestinian public which has yet to see any serious attempt to put an end to the lawlessness that has prevailed, especially in Gaza. A day before the deadline for nominations, the front page of Al Quds showed a photo of masked men, connected with his own party's Al Aksa Brigades, taking over the Central Elections Commission in Gaza and taking computers from the elections office into the street in a clear sign of defiance of the PA's security apparatus. This sort of thuggery has been going on for some time. Few if any of these gangs have been arrested, charged or imprisoned. In addition to the rebels within Fatah, Abbas has failed to rein in the Islamic groups, despite help from the Egyptians. The Cairo agreement for a long period of quiet is about to run out and, although it seems that at least Hamas will extend the tahida'a (quiet), Islamic Jihad and the Israeli army seem bent on an extended fight. Sure Islamic Jihad, like most Palestinians, would like to end the occupation, but it is not clear how its haphazard actions and retaliations will produce that. Nor is it clear what the Israelis want since they clearly know that there is no military solution here. Palestinians have often argued that the higher Palestinian interest must be respected and in this area the most recent public opinion poll shows a clear Palestinian majority in favor of the continuation of the quiet. Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not able or willing to do much more than arrest a few junior Islamic Jihad activists. WHILE THE problems in Fatah and the lack of security are exposing the weakness of Mahmoud Abbas, these problems pale in comparison to the the problems he has with Israel. His strong election win on a peace platform has done little to convince the Sharon government that he is indeed a partner on the Palestinian side. Chairman Abbas has been unable to get any substantive concession from Israel, whether regarding checkpoints, the release of the thousands of prisoners held without trial, or even to have the Israelis meet face to face with him. Israel has continued with its unilateralism and refuses to even agree on the basis of a cease-fire. Sharon withdrew from Gaza without ever meeting with any senior Palestinian official. Even the permission for the limited opening of the Rafah crossing only occurred a few months later and after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to put her reputation on the line. Now Israel is refusing to honor its agreement to allow bus caravans to transport Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank, which was supposed to commence on December 15. A senior Israeli source assured me that Israel is under pressure to honor that portion of the agreement because this one has the signature of the US. The source told me that barring any attacks the Gaza-West Bank caravan might be permitted to operate by the first of the year. FOR PALESTINIANS, especially within Fatah, January 1st is an important date because it marks the 40th anniversary of that movement's launching. If indeed the caravan is operational by then, this would be a small gift to Mahmoud Abbas before the January 25th legislative elections. Chairman Abbas, however, cannot depend on small gifts here and there. The time has come for him to establish himself as head of the Fatah party, as the commander in chief of the Palestinians forces and as the Palestinian representative in bilateral and multilateral talks. While there are many issues that can and should be delegated, issues of national security and negotiations are the domain of the president. If he does not take charge, in areas that the average Palestinian can see, he will soon be bypassed by a younger, more assertive leadership. The writer is a Palestinian journalist and commentator.