Palestinian Elections: It's time for Mahmoud Abbas to go - opinion

Too many political leaders fail to recognize when they have exhausted their welcome by their own people.

GERSHON BASKIN and PA President Mahmoud Abbas (right) – serious discussions. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GERSHON BASKIN and PA President Mahmoud Abbas (right) – serious discussions.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – Abu Mazen. Over the years, I have spent many hours in discussions with him and always found him sincere and genuine in his desire for peace with Israel.
When he first became president of the Palestinian Authority, I was convinced that he was the right man in the right place at the right time. He conducted free and fair elections for the position of president after the death of Yasser Arafat. He ran on a ticket of being against violence, denouncing the militarization of the Second Intifada, and in support of the two-states solution. His victory was a renewal of hope and a real chance for peace.  
On January 10, 2005, the day after he was elected, I wrote to Abbas the following:
“It is with great pleasure that I congratulate you and the Palestinian people on your victory in yesterday’s elections. I am confident that the support of the people of Palestine for your election is a sign that the Palestinian people are ready to move beyond the impasse of the four bloody years that have only brought great suffering and despair to the two peoples. The time for reason and logic is upon us. With the clear mandate that you have received from the people, you now have the legitimacy, coupled with your vision and wisdom to move the region back into a political process where conflicts and disputes will be settled at the table and not on the battle field...
“I am optimistic that a new era has begun. I look forward to seeing your leadership in action... There clearly is a new opportunity for both people, but it will not last for long and we can not afford to make mistakes.”
Abbas wrote back to me: “Dear Dr. Baskin, your personal work has always stood as an example of the kind of relations that both the Palestinian and Israeli people deserve: commitment to dialogue as a means for advancing joint interests and for resolving disputes. I and the Palestinian Authority remain committed to a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and hope that the forces of peace in Israel will prevail.” Now in the 16th year of his four-year term of office I would like to send a very different message to President Abbas. I do so with great respect yet perhaps with great deal of nerve as well (what we call in Hebrew chutzpah) because his own people, mostly because of social norms, will not say to him directly what they say to me about him. I believe that these words are shared by a majority of the Palestinian people. It is time to go!
Too many political leaders fail to recognize when they have exhausted their welcome by their own people. Too many leaders (like our own in Israel) think that they are the only person, or at least the best person, to serve the needs of their people. They think that they are irreplaceable. They are not.
All leaders should have a term limit and no leader should govern for 16 years without having a renewed democratic mandate from their people. Mahmoud Abbas truly wanted to bring peace to his people. He sincerely wanted his legacy to be that of the leader who brought freedom, independence and the end of the occupation to the Palestinian people. He did not succeed. Palestine is not free, not liberated and the occupation is more entrenched than ever.
At the age of 85 and at the end of what should be his term of office, President Abbas needs to re-think his legacy. He can still have a remarkable legacy and still have his place in Palestinian history and the Palestinian people as a great leader, but only if he decides to step down with the new elections that he has agreed to hold for president in July of this year. His legacy can be the leader who reunited his people, brought Gaza and the West Bank into a single Palestinian governance. He can have the legacy of the man who saved Palestinian democracy and brought to power a new generation of Palestinian leaders.
In his waning days in office, his regime has become increasingly undemocratic. Corruption over the last years in the territories, (in Gaza under Hamas as well as the West Bank under Fatah) has become the norm, rather than the what he promised when he was first elected – transparency and accountability.
If Abbas remains in office, and runs for reelection or cancels the elections, his legacy will be like those of the other Arab leaders who failed to see reality and failed to see the needs and interests of their people: Mubarak, Qadhafi, Ben Ali, and others. Most Palestinians have very little confidence in these elections. If they take place, they say, the authorities in power will manipulate the results in the way they want. If they don’t take place, the authorities will likely blame Israel, but everyone knows that it is all part and parcel of the collaboration that already exists.
If Abbas were to declare that he is not running for reelection, the chance of sparking the light of democracy could become real. Abbas could actually encourage the birth of new political parties. He could call for young people to stand up, organize and be counted. He could express his faith in the wisdom of his own people and allow them the genuine opportunity to determine their own future. This could be Abbas’s legacy and his parting message to his people – a message of confidence and of hope.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press. It is now out in Arabic and in Portuguese as well.