Middle Israel: Mahmoud Abbas - A preliminary appraisal

Abbas' most positive legacy, from the viewpoint of peace, was his defiance of violence.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walks with Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (unseen) as they review the honor guard in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walks with Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (unseen) as they review the honor guard in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
News of Mahmoud Abbas’s departure has been premature.
A decade into his presidency, Yasser Arafat’s successor is sticking around despite his statement this week that he will not run again for office in the PLO’s institutions. As Arab affairs expert Ehud Yaari explained, Abbas is out to remove rivals from the path of his son, Yasser, should that millionaire decide to succeed his father.
Such a dynamic is for now a distant scenario, and even more unclear are its potential prospects, which can unfold as happily as King Hussein’s clean transition to King Abdullah, or as unhappily as Hafez Assad’s, Hosni Mubarak’s or Muammar Gaddafi’s anointments of their sons who ended up, respectively, at war, behind bars and en route to the gallows.
Yet whatever the timing, circumstances and aftermath of the 80-year-old Abbas’s departure, his leadership seems in its autumn. His historic imprint has apparently been stamped.
It follows that now is the time for journalism, as history’s first draft, to furnish tomorrow’s biographers with an outline for Abbas’s dialectical tale of courage intertwined with fear, tragedy entangled with farce, and pragmatism that tangoed with delusion.
Abbas’s politically formative experience arrived at age 13, when he and his family, at the height of Israel’s War of Independence, fled from Safed to Syria. This memory fed the future statesman’s career and also distinguished him from his alter ego, Yasser Arafat, who was not a refugee, and was mostly raised and shaped in Egypt.
The Palestinian president’s personal trauma and longing made Israelis, even right-wingers, appreciate and also identify with his pain, because it was genuine.
Indeed, more than any other Palestinian Abbas personified his people’s inconclusive journey from loss through struggle to semi-return, and their elites’ unfinished voyage from mythology to truth.
Conventional biographies will therefore begin Abbas’s life in his childhood, then trace his exile’s activity until 1992, then follow his Number-Two’s travails between the emergence of the Oslo Accords and Yasser Arafat’s death, and finally treat his own leadership of the Palestinian Authority.
The better biographies will split Abbas’s life into these four parts: character, circumstances, success and demise.
ABBAS’S CHARACTER starkly contrasted Arafat’s.
A former teacher in Damascus and civil servant in Qatar, Abbas lacked his predecessor’s extroversion, flamboyance and penchant for adventure. The traits that would be drawbacks under other circumstances proved helpful following Arafat’s departure, when many Palestinians sought a measure of stability and calm.
Yet adventure befell Abbas despite himself as the main circumstantial event of his life – besides of course Israel’s emergence – unfolded: the fall of the Soviet Union.
The swift unraveling of the East Bloc’s ideological pillars, political beams and imperial superstructure left Abbas strategically orphaned; like the cosmonauts who could not return to the superpower whence they were rocketed spaceward, because it no longer existed.
Having studied during the 1980s in Soviet Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, the USSR was for Abbas more than nostalgia. The empire that pampered and ingratiated him was for the Palestinian activist-turned-diplomat a mentor, an inspiration, a benefactor, a wellspring of confidence and an engine of hope.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he saw his PhD adviser and ideological priest Yevgeny Primakov embracing the post-Soviet heresy and joining chief-apostate Mikhail Gorbachev’s circle – Abbas understood that the tremors under his feet heralded geostrategic earthquake and Palestinian catastrophe.
Running for cover along with his colleagues and their cause, he barged into a team of rescue workers out to clear the debris of the newly fallen world.
Led by Shimon Peres, this team shared Abbas’s understanding that the previous world order’s collapse demanded urgent construction. The difference was only that while the former was looking above the ruins, eager to build a new world on the old one’s ruins, the other looked under the surface, longing for the past that was now in the future’s jaws.
Even so, the refugees and rescuers joined hands and marched jointly toward the horizon where they remained entangled for the rest of Abbas’s days. It was, then, this fusion of memory, choice, character and circumstance that shaped the legacy of Mahmoud Abbas.
ABBAS’S MOST positive legacy, from the viewpoint of peace, was his defiance of violence.
Biographers will break pens over the scope and intensity of the younger Abbas’s involvement in terror. There will be no arguing that last decade he came out publicly and forcefully against the wholesale assault on Israel’s civilians while it was raging.
Abbas’s admonitions to his people’s suicides were not reasoned the way their enemies would have phrased them. Rather than say that the Jews belong in this land no less than their neighbors, or that the terrorists’ murders were crimes, Abbas only said that terror was harming the Palestinian cause. He never systematically demystified violence, for instance by rewriting textbooks or ending the practice of naming streets after terrorists.
Even so, his rebuke of terror was a lot more than what others did, and could have easily cost him his life. It took courage, and this no biographer will be able to convincingly deny.
Moreover, when he arrived in Arafat’s seat Abbas’s stated disdain for violence became policy. Though its durability remains doubtful, the fact is that Abbas created a security apparatus that confronted terror, and generally cooperated with Israel’s security forces.
Abbas also publicly acquiesced with the Jewish state’s existence, repeatedly meeting with its leaders, even with Ariel Sharon, who more than any other Israeli met the Palestinians on the battlefield, beginning in 1948, when he was dragged severely wounded from the Judean foothills while Abbas was dragged from the Galilean mountains to the Damascene plain.
These, then, were Abbas’s accomplishments. Where they ended – his failures began.
ABBAS’S WORST failure, from the Palestinian viewpoint, was his loss of Gaza.
Like Yugoslavia after Tito, only much faster, Arafat’s inheritance fell apart in Abbas’s hands, less than two years into his rule. Having happened during his watch, his biographers will likely agree it was his fault.
One of the most demanding tasks they will face is the reconstruction of his actions and inactions in the weeks immediately following Israel’s departure from Gaza in summer ’05.
Some will argue that he could have done this, others that he could have done that and others yet that he could have done neither, but all will ask: Why didn’t Abbas go to Gaza? There will be no arguing that he could emerged in Gaza ahead of a security force and seized it, if only he had been prepared to clash with Hamas. Whether or not he was mentally built to engage in such a clash will be debated, but there will be no debating that Hamas was ready for the war that it soon waged and Abbas swiftly lost.
Looking at Gaza in autumn ’05, Abbas could have gone there armed with the entire rich world’s support, and built a brave new world on the old one’s debris.
Alas, unwilling to build new worlds, he abandoned Gaza to its devices, and sat idly while it swallowed his troops.
That is how, alongside the unity he undid, Abbas also failed to deliver prosperity and democracy, having lost mercantile prime-minister Salam Fayyad, and also failed to this day to hold the presidential election originally scheduled for 2009.
SET AGAINST this backdrop of limited pragmatism and courage, Abbas also remained on the wrong side of the most tragic Palestinian war: the war on truth.
Biographers will debate the purpose of Abbas’s strategy of attacking Israel in legal and diplomatic forums. Some will say it was his way of continuing violence through other means, some that it was his way to further steer the Palestinians away from violence.
From Middle Israelis’ viewpoint, there will be no debating that while at it Abbas libeled them. The man who in a speech to the UN invented Israeli war crimes, and the man who wrote in The New York Times that the Arab invasions of 1948 followed rather than preceded the Palestinians’ displacement, remained the man who while in Soviet Moscow wrote that the Zionist movement conspired with Hitler to make the Holocaust happen.
Tragedy thus fed farce. Refusing to learn from the Soviets’ demise that kingdoms of lies can only last so long, Abbas continued nurturing the delusion that his people’s plight is anyone’s responsibility and plot except their own leaders’.
The truth, that Abbas would have been in Safed to this day but for the Palestinian choices to deny the Jews’ right to a state, to shun any compromise, and to wage war – will remain for another leader to unveil.