Israel promotes Abbas to 'president'

Palestinian Authority leader will no longer be known as "chairman"; move aimed at boosting status.

abbas 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
In an apparent effort to increase Mahmoud Abbas's stature both internationally and among the Palestinians, Israel has quietly promoted him from "Chairman Abbas" to "President Abbas." Last September, when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni addressed the UN General Assembly, she referred to Abbas as chairman of the Palestinian Authority. When she addresses the body this year, however, she will - as she and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have been doing now for months - most likely refer to him as the president of the PA. One government official said there is more at issue here than merely semantics. "The significance of the term 'president' is that it gives him greater esteem, both domestically and internationally. It is no secret that Israel is trying to bolster him, especially in contrast to the PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh," the official said. Ra'anan Gissin, the spokesman for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that unlike Olmert, his former boss studiously avoided using the term 'president' - both in regard to Yasser Arafat and later to Abbas - because it is a term loaded with significance. The term 'president' implies the head of a sovereign territory, Gissin said, and Sharon was not willing to bestow that title on Arafat. "Olmert is trying to increase Abbas's legitimacy, and that makes sense in light of the opposition he faces vis-à-vis Hamas," Gissin said. But Sharon had other considerations, Gissin said, and would only use that title once a Palestinian state came into being. "Arafat took the title of president for himself, but Sharon would not acquiesce, and said, 'Why should I call him 'president' when he can't even control his own backyard.'" Regarding Abbas, Sharon, according to Gissin, continued to call him 'chairman,' with his thinking being that Abbas had to "earn" the title of president by fulfilling the PA's obligations. Israel's change in attitude seemed to come about last year at this time. While even as late as last September Olmert talked about "Chairman Mahmoud Abbas," by October, when he addressed the opening of the Knesset's winter session, "Chairman Abbas" had already morphed into "President Abbas." The Oslo accords, cognizant of the significance of the words, discussed the title issue, and in the Gaza-Jericho agreement letters from 1994 it was stipulated that "When Chairman Arafat enters the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area, he will use the title 'Chairman (Ra'ees in Arabic) of the Palestinian Authority' or 'Chairman of the PLO,' and will not use the title 'President of Palestine.'" Likewise, the 1995 Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip uses neither the word chairman nor president, but rather Ra'ees, which could be translated either way. The ambivalence of the Arabic term is what gives Israel the leeway to translate it according to its own political inclinations.