Abbas gambles for control

The differences between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have become clear since Arafat’s death.

Abbas 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
Abbas 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
It’s been seven years since the death of Yasser Arafat, on November 11, 2004. The Palestinian Authority (PA) commemorated the date with a series of public gatherings, ceremonies, and media items.
This year’s events were hardly different from previous years’ observances. Arafat was repeatedly referred to as a shahid or martyr.
Nasser al-Qudwa, Arafat’s nephew who has held various positions in the PLO foreign service and is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reminded the public that Arafat died as the result of a mysterious poisoning, which he claimed was probably carried out by the Israeli Mossad.
As the Palestinian political leadership commemorates the death of Arafat, it is also busy trying to put life into the reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Abbas and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal are personally involved in this effort, as are Abbas’s emissary, Azzam al-Ahmed, a member of the central committee of Fatah, and Musa Abu-Marzuk, another central figure in Hamas.
The general idea is to establish, as soon as possible, a government of experts to administer the West Bank and Gaza, similar to the government currently headed by Salam Fayyad. But Hamas is opposed to Fayyad’s continued candidacy; as a compromise, it would appear that the new government will be referred to as an “interim government,” tasked primarily with preparing for general elections next May. This arrangement allows for the removal of Fayyad to be referred to as “a temporary step.” In mid-November, Fayyad himself issued a statement declaring that he would “not be an obstacle in the attempts to reach national reconciliation,” thus paving the way for the establishment of the new unity government.
These steps reveal a change in Abbas’s attitudes towards Hamas. In an attempt to understand these most recent developments, it is interesting to compare and contrast Abbas and Arafat. After seven years of Abbas’s rule, we can confidently say that Abbas and Arafat are nearly complete opposites, especially in terms of character, personal behavior and, above all, in management policy and leadership style For many decades, Arafat topped the “most hated” list of most Israelis. The decades of bloody conflicts, animosity and fear condensed Israeli opinions of the Palestinians into their attitude towards this one man. He was described as an Arab Hitler, hiding in a bunker in Beirut or in the Muqata in Ramallah as Hitler hid in his bunker in Berlin. He was written about as a bloodthirsty terrorist, a corrupt thug who stole billions from his people, kept the money in safe deposits throughout the world and smuggled a fortune to his wife, Suha.
Recently, for the first time, the media published photographs of Arafat’s daughter, Zahawa, now 16, who lives with her mother, Suha, in Malta. This reminded the public of Suha’s less-than-brilliant career – after living for years in Tunis, where her business deals fell afoul of Leila Trabelsi, wife of the deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Suha fled to Malta, where her brother is the PLO’s ambassador. According to Tunisian authorities, she is wanted by the police on suspicion of corruption.
Israeli and foreign publications presented Arafat as a sexual pervert who held wild orgies. After he established the PA in Ramallah, there were stories about his being an unstable, disorganized dictator, perhaps mentally ill.
Arafat was six years older than Abbas, who was born in 1935. Both were part of the founding generation of Fatah, which had its beginnings in the activities of Palestinian youth in the emirates of the Persian Gulf.
The six years that separate them are significant. Arafat belonged to the generation that fought in 1948 against the establishment of the State of Israel. In the spring of that year, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a Palestinian volunteer. He experienced only a few days of warfare – he claimed that the invading Egyptian Army confiscated his weapons and prevented him from participating – but he was still considered a fighter. Abbas, on the other hand, was only 13 years old during Israel’s War of Independence and escaped with his family from Safed to Damascus, where he completed his studies; years later, he found work in Qatar.
As an adult, Arafat continued to live as a militant, always wearing a uniform, carrying a pistol and promoting a policy of terrorism.
He was overly theatrical, regularly speaking about the million shahids willing to die to liberate Jerusalem.
Abbas, in contrast, has always maintained the image of a civilian leader and intellectual.
He obtained in PhD in history at the University of Moscow – raising reservations in his thesis about the accepted number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. He has been a private businessman, always wears suits, and has a normal family life, with children.
Arafat spent many nights in his office and his late-life marriage to his secretary Suha Tawil (he was 61 and she was 27 when they married) was always a subject of jokes among Palestinians.
These differences enable us to compare the dissimilarity between Abbas’s and Arafat’s attitudes towards Hamas. Arafat, who arrived in the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, following the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel, knew that Hamas enjoyed extensive support among the Palestinian public, and he understood that in order to control the territories, he would have to fight them. Fight them he did, with a combination of brutality and political intrigue.
One of his first acts was to set up a competing religious movement, known as Hallas (the Islamic Salvation Front). Arafat provided Hallas with funds, and it published its own newspaper promoting political and religious positions similar to those of Hamas. His second act was to arrest and humiliate Hamas leaders, among them Mahmud al-Zahar.
While he was under arrest, Zahar’s beard was shaven off by wardens. This incident had a great impact in the territories; it was viewed as a tasteless humiliation and met with anger and widespread condemnation.
Arafat, who understood that this could hurt him, responded immediately, using a method well-known in internal Palestinian politics – striking with one hand and presenting gifts with the other. He granted one of Zahar’s brothers the authority to provide tax licenses in Gaza – not exactly a high-level position, but one with wide-ranging powers and a nice income, that enabled the brother to grant favors to anyone he wished. I visited Gaza during those days and heard the rumors about the divisions and quarrels within the large Zahar clan, between those who maintained their support for Hamas and were angry that Arafat had humiliated a family member, and those who benefited from the taxi licenses and even praised Arafat for providing them with a good income.
Arafat also wooed senior Hamas officials, and won several of them over to his side.
He appointed Sheikh Imad el-Falugi from Gaza and Sheikh Talal Cider from Hebron as ministers in the government in Ramallah, leading to a split and dissension within the ranks of the Hamas leadership.
Arafat also made sure that there were no general elections in the West Bank or Gaza, because he knew that Hamas had a chance of winning. It was easy to follow Palestinian public opinion through the elections for the student councils at the universities, professional organizations and workers’ unions, and, during the first years of the PA’s rule in Ramallah, Hamas candidates won them all. To Arafat it was clear that he could not risk elections unless he could be assured of a Fatah win, as in 1996, when Hamas boycotted the elections.
Abbas, on the other hand, has employed different methods. And he failed. After the death of Arafat, Abbas decided to hold democratic elections for the Palestinian parliament. Hamas won an absolute majority of the seats, primarily because of the electoral system, in which half of the seats are elected on regional lists and the other half on national lists. While Fatah made a good showing in the national lists, Hamas had significant accomplishments on the regional lists. If Abbas had checked the system in advance, it would have been apparent that it provided Hamas with a clear advantage. This mistake has proven very costly for Abbas and Fatah and they ultimately lost control over Gaza.
It seems now that Abbas has learned to be more careful. In negotiations with Hamas, he is demanding that the central election committee, which operates under the auspices of the PA in Ramallah, will be responsible for overseeing the electoral system and preparations for the elections. The committee will also be responsible for the police units that will supervise the fairness of the elections.
The interim government, which will organize the elections and remain in charge until the election process is completed, will maintain a policy agreed upon in conjunction with Hamas. The agreement includes a general consensus with regard to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, popular (non-violent) opposition to the Israeli occupation and continuation of the Palestinian Authority’s international political activities.
According to “Al-Quds,” the Jerusalem-based daily newspaper, acceptance of these three principles should be perceived as a concession on the part of Hamas, which agreed to these principles only after considerable Egyptian pressure and due to the fact that Hamas has been considerably weakened due to the loss of political and economic support from Syria and Iran.
Abbas’s spokesmen are well aware of the risks inherent in cooperation with Hamas.
They will face heavy pressure from the Israeli government, the US administration and others, all of whom view Hamas as a terrorist organization with whom no cooperation should be permitted.
But at this time, it appears that Abbas is willing to take this risk. From his point of view, there is also an opportunity here that he should not miss. Abbas has no other way to regain control over Gaza. And without control over Gaza, all his political efforts to obtain international recognition will remain in vain.