"Abbas: Walking towards oblivion
Abbas and Olmert: A picture is indeed worth a thousand words!
28 February - 5 March 2008
Issue No. 886
Walking towards oblivion
Mahmoud Abbas is on a losing path, plain and simple, writes Ramzy Baroud*
Time is running out for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although both men are still committed to their risky venture of marginalising Hamas at any cost, the latter's obduracy and recent events in Gaza point to the inescapable conclusion that the undertaking was doomed from the beginning.
For Olmert the issue of demographics remains key. He told the Israeli daily Haaretz in an interview published in November 2007 that if it didn't agree to an independent Palestinian state, Israel would "face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished". The apartheid analogy is of course not new. Leading South Africans themselves were the first to make the comparison, and Israel's history of aiding and abetting infamous apartheid South African governments is no secret either.
But Olmert's belated rude-awakening aside, it is Mahmoud Abbas who is running out of options. Unlike Olmert, Abbas has no real, measurable powers. For one, his popularity amongst his own people has never been high. Past quarrels with late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat during the early years of the Palestinian Intifada singled Abbas out as an untrustworthy opportunist. Late professor Edward Said once called him "moderately corrupt". The formidable Said died before seeing the moderate corruption of Abbas morph into a wholesale onslaught on democracy, freedom and every noble principle the Palestinians ever fought for. I wonder what Said would have said after seeing the people of Gaza suffering beyond comprehension while Abbas and Olmert meet in the latter's Jerusalem residence, exchanging words of praise and vowing their undying commitment to "peace"?
A photo released by the Israeli government's press office on 19 February showed both leaders leaving another futile meeting in Jerusalem, Olmert -- aware of the cameras flashing all around them -- holding an umbrella for a grinning Abbas. The postcard-like scenario is of course part of the continuing charade of peace talks, replete with deadlines and deadline extensions, interrupted by temporary quarrels, which are sorted out by US envoys before the resumption of more talks. How long can Abbas and Olmert carry on with this farce?
For Olmert, the objective is clear: stall until a "solution" can be imposed on the Palestinians. This in turns depends on the finalisation of the construction of illegal settlements, the separation wall, and the network of Jew-only bypass roads in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. However, Olmert's poor standing among the Israeli public and the aforementioned "demographic threat" will not make it possible for him to stall indefinitely. Still, with the US's record of unconditionally backing Israeli policies, Olmert will remain in a relatively safe spot, regardless of which presidential candidate goes on to claim the White House.
One can hardly say the same about Abbas. His usefulness for Israel -- and thus the US administration -- is entirely dependent on his level of "cooperation", which means ensuring Palestinian disunity, fighting Hamas, and remaining a pawn in the US's imaginative view of the entire region (whereby "moderates" stand united against "extremists" and "rejectionists"). Yet unlike other "Arab moderates", Abbas lacks any leverage. He presides over an ever shrinking entity, itself under military occupation. Many of his people regularly accuse him of treason, or at best of selling out. On top of this, his party is falling apart. Mohamed Dahlan is already acting with the airs of a president. Now based in Egypt, Dahlan has been gathering support for himself amidst scattered talks about his desire to form an alternative party to Fatah.
Worse yet, Mohamed Nazzal, a visible member of Hamas's political bureau in Damascus, told Aljazeera.net on 19 February that despite Hamas's insistence on the inclusion of Marwan Al-Barghouti (a leading Fatah figure who is greatly supported by the movement's youth and strongly disliked by the old guard) in any future prisoner swap, Israel has removed Barghouti's name from the list at Abbas's behest.
Abbas's lack of any meaningful political vision is also promoting other members of his team to speak of political programmes entirely inconsistent with his own style. Yasser Abd Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee, told Reuters in interview 20 February -- views he repeated to AFP and Palestinian radio -- what Palestinians should consider should talks continue to falter: "If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities; if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally."
Abbas's answer was his intent to continue negotiating, and that he was "optimistic and hopeful".
It's unclear from where Abbas's hope originates. He stands on very shaky ground, not only in his relationship with Israel, the US and his own party, at home and abroad, but with Hamas as well. His earlier rhetoric about Hamas's ties to Al-Qaeda and the "forces of darkness" are softening, but he knows he has no mandate to reach out to his opponents. And it is increasingly clear to the world that isolating Hamas means the continuation of Gaza's mass hunger and suffering. This is so extreme that even the Europeans are reportedly rethinking their stance on Hamas, which the EU had deemed a "terrorist" organisation.
If Abbas tries to rethink his relations with Hamas, he will be abandoned by Israel and the US, and might find himself victim of a calculated coup led by his party's strongmen. If he continues with the farce of endless and futile talks with Israel, the patience of his people will eventually run out. Considering all of this -- Abbas's shared responsibly for the plight of Gaza, his anti-democratic legacy, and his inability to unite his faltering party -- the president seems condemned to a lose-lose scenario, one which would take no less than a miracle to reverse.
The writer is editor of PalestineChronicle.com