ATbar Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) - Lost opportunities

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) - Lost opportunities

27/12/2011 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  

Abba Eban, Israel’s former foreign minister observed that Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" [for peace].

This aphorism could well fit Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Abu Mazen was elected as PA President in January 2005, after the death in November 2004 of Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian revolution, the leader of the Fatah movement and of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the first Chairman of the PA.

It was at the closing stages of a bloody uprising dubbed the al-Aqsa intifada instigated by Arafat himself in September 2000, in spite of his pledge at the Oslo Accords not to use violence anymore. More than a thousand Israelis, mostly civilians, and almost the triple number of Palestinians, at least half of them civilians, were killed and many more injured and maimed.

Abu Mazen was known to have opposed firmly the use of indiscriminate violence by the Palestinians but was marginalized by Arafat and had no influence on the events.

Elected with 62% of the votes by the battered Palestinian people Abu Mazen could have changed the course of its history and possibly bring peace by sidelining the radical elements of his own Fatah movement and fighting the radical Hamas movement, which was eager to continue the armed struggle and take control of the Palestinians territories towards the creation of an Islamist state.

But Abu Mazen preferred to co-opt Hamas, possibly believing this would strengthen him at a time when he was perceived by his colleagues in the Fatah movement and by the Israeli establishment as a non-charismatic weak leader.
The result was a disaster: his divided Fatah movement lost first the municipal elections, then the January 2006 legislative elections - which brought Hamas in total control of the first Palestinian Parliament – and finallyin June 2007 was defeated in a short bloody military coup by Hamas in Gaza, which took full control of the Strip.

Hamas has transformed Gaza into an Islamist fortress, an avantpost for Iran and a basis for rocket, missiles and other terrorist attacks against Israel.

Since then, and more so after the Israeli “Cast Lead” operation against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008/9, the relations between the Abu Mazen led PA and the Hamas leadership were in a permanent crisis without any success in the multiple reconciliation efforts.

During Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s term of office there were intensive high-level negotiations between Israel and the PA, good security cooperation between the two sides, and the economic situation in the PA controlled West Bank and the security situation in Israel improved greatly.

However, Abu Mazen did not compromise with Olmert’s far reaching peace proposals [as described by the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her recent autobiographic book] and no agreement was reached.

Upon taking office, President Obama promised to support the creation of a Palestinian state, to bring quickly peace between Israel and the Palestinians and also declared he opposed Israeli settlements.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known for his hawkish positions, publicly expressed his willingness to see a Palestinian state established alongside a Jewish state and was the first Israeli politician to freeze construction in the settlementsfor ten months, Abu Mazen did not try to challenge Netanyahu’s policy in renewed negotiations but asked for more freezing of settlements.

He preferred to wait for Obama to deliver him the goods and obtain more concessions from Israel without any agreement. His tactics only brought estrangement from the Obama administration, aware of its own mistaken policy towards Israel.
Abu Mazen decided in the spring of 2011 that the best strategy to achieve the recognition of the Palestinian state would be to apply for it at the UN Security Council and General Assembly, a ground where the Palestinians seemed to have huge political support.

On 4 May 2011, Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Politburo Chairman Khaled Meshaal,in a surprising move, announced they achieved a reconciliation agreement which would enable them to create a unity government of independent technocrats, holding new presidential and parliamentary elections, release political prisoners and hold elections to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which would permit Hamas to join the only “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” These same terms were offered by Fatah to Hamas last year, but were rejected by Hamas.

What changed meantime were the uprisings in the Arab world and their impact on the two Palestinian rival movements.
Fatah and the Hamas leaderships were under pressure from their own public opinion to unite and advance the interests of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, from Abu Mazen’s point of view it was important to show before the September 2011 discussions at the United Nations that he was in control of all the Palestinian territories and that the international community could count on him to lead a united nation to independence.

He was also aware of the important role the Egyptian military government played in brokering the negotiations with Hamas and the need to keep good relations with the most important Arab country, which supported him during his years as PA president.

Hamas for its part is in a dire position in Syria, where its sponsor, President Bashar al-Assad, is losing the battle against his own people. Hamas leaders are quietly leaving the country and looking for a new place to move their headquarters. They also are interested in improving relations with the military transitional government in Cairo in the hope that an Islamist takeover of the Parliament in the ongoing elections will bring their Muslim Brotherhood colleagues to power.

For the moment, with the Obama administration firmly opposed to his strategy at the UN, Abu Mazen seems to have lost the chance of recognition of the Palestinian state at the Security Council, while the formalistic recognition by the General Assembly could bring only more strained relations with the United States, the termination of financial support from Western powers and stalled peace negotiations with Israel.

In spite of optimistic declarations by Abu Mazen after his meeting with Khaled Meshaal in late November there are no real signsyet of progress in the implementation of the reconciliation agreement.

The two Palestinian factions were programmed to meet on December 21, but they only announced the decision to form "a new elections commission for the presidential, parliamentary and national council elections," but postponed discussing the issue of forming the government to January 26.

Abu Mazen indeed met Khaled Meshaal in Cairo on December 21 in order to look at the possibility of setting up a new PLO leadership body which would be "the first concrete application of the Cairo agreement, of the reconciliation and of the partnership between all the political forces". They discussed "the next stage in PLO's political program" but nothing definite came out of these meetings.

At a huge Gaza rallyon December 14 to commemorate Hamas’24th anniversary, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared that"resistance is the way and it is the strategic choice to liberate Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea and to remove the invaders from the blessed land of Palestine," and proclaimed that soon the Arab peoples will build an army and forcibly take Jerusalem from Israel. He said the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups had “spearheaded the Arab Spring…either through direct confrontation with tyrannical regimes or through the ballot box”.

On the background of the events in the region, especially in Egypt, Hamas will probably be the great winner in case of new elections for the Palestinian parliament and possibly for the PA presidency.

But even in case Abu Mazen will succeed to build a viable coalition with radical Islamist Hamas, what future is it in such a move for the prospects for peacenegotiations with Israel? And for the stability of the region? And for Mahmoud Abbas’ own political future and historical heritage?