The failure of a would-be peacemaker

Mahmoud Abbas seems reconciled that he will not see Palestinian independence in his day.

Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AS HE recedes slowly into the sunset of his political life, Mahmoud Abbas, now in his eighties, cuts a tragic figure. In more than 10 years as leader of the Palestinian Authority, what can he claim to have achieved? Moreover, he knows his last throw of the dice, internationalization of the conflict with Israel, is unlikely to capture the glittering prize: full-fledged Palestinian independence.
President Abbas seems destined to bow out of history empty-handed.
His predecessor Yasser Arafat led the Palestinian national struggle from the political margins of the Arab world to center stage. Then, through the Oslo Accords, he was able to reunite the Palestinian leadership with its people and the territory, Gaza and the West Bank, over which it sought to rule. He also built an impressive array of government institutions.
Very little of that, if anything, remains. With Abbas at the helm, the legislative council doesn’t meet, elections to the council and the presidency that should have taken place years ago have not been held, and there is less democracy in the PA than there was under Arafat.
There is also very little left of the Oslo Accords, of which Abbas was one of the chief architects. All around him, what Abbas sees are Jewish settlements multiplying on the ruins of Oslo and his own powerlessness to reverse the trend.
During his long career as a commander and leader in Fatah and the PLO, he focused on gaining wide Arab support for the Palestinian cause and turning a deep knowledge of Israeli society and politics to his advantage. But neither tack has worked for him.
The inter-Arab system has collapsed and there is no one out there to give him significant diplomatic backing. And although he has appealed directly to Israeli society several times, saying all the right things, Israelis responded with profound skepticism and veered sharply to the right.
Nor does Abbas believe the Palestinians can force an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories through armed resistance. On the contrary, in his view the violent second intifada was a disaster.
Worse, from his point of view, he has no faith in a non-violent intifada either. Abbas simply does not believe the Palestinian people would be able to keep up non-violent resistance over any meaningful length of time. He is convinced his Fatah organization is incapable of spreading the doctrine of non-violent resistance or of creating structures to keep it going.
The reasons for Abbas’s lack of faith can be found in his own personal history. During his political career, he rarely mixed with ordinary Palestinians and never initiated or built political or social institutions.
He was always a man of the dark, smoke-filled rooms.
His lack of feeling for the common people is mutual. The public submits to the institution Abbas heads partly due to the security forces’ iron fist and partly through inertia. People young and old despair of ever being able to change things. What political unity Abbas was able to create has eroded, leaving a huge vacuum.
Abbas is well aware of this potential threat. He is also well aware of mounting discontent in Fatah ranks and of widespread criticism of him to his face and behind his back.
This is not how he planned to end his career. Angry and frustrated, he occasionally comes out of his shell to stamp powerfully on critics or anyone he identifies as a potential political rival. He is happy to receive warning of Hamas plots and intrigues from the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), and he does his bit toward keeping the Fatah-Hamas unity government paralyzed and delaying the rehabilitation of Gaza.
In the wake of international pressure, Abbas tried the path of peace negotiations more than once. He hoped the US and Western Europe would pressure Israel into an agreement. He was wrong. Now he seems reconciled to the fact that Palestinian independence will not be achieved in his day.
He is also reluctant to accept advice to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and place full responsibility for daily life in the West Bank once again at Israel’s door. He does not want that forfeiture of sovereignty to go down in history under his name. But he is unable to create a viable alternative to pressure Israel.
As a last resort, he is appealing to Western Europe for recognition of a virtual Palestinian state and to the International Criminal Court to blame Israel for the settlements, the occupation and the ongoing impasse.
He hopes that in September, the UN Security Council will pass some sort of resolution on Israel/Palestine. But he knows none of these avenues will bring the Palestinians independence. They will only help keep the aspiration for independence alive – to be fulfilled by another leader at another time.
Menachem Klein, an expert on Palestinian politics and society in the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University, is currently visiting professor at King’s College London. His latest book, ‘Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron,’ was published last year