ANALYSIS / Bluffing or not, Abbas has shown he's no Arafat
Abbas' announcement on his possible resignation shows he isn't willing to risk his head for the Palestinians.
RAMALLAH - Thousands of Fatah supporters gathered yesterday in the Muqata in Ramallah to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat. The memorial ceremony quickly turned into a mass support rally for his successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Key to everything is the uncertainty regarding Abbas' plans for the future. Only a week ago he declared that he did not intend to run again for the presidency of the PA. In what appears to have been a well-planned and calculated display of support - void of any spontaneity - the speakers at the rally urged Abbas to recall his announcement.
But Abbas is avoiding any direct reference to his plans. Instead, he once more charged Israel with scheming against the Palestinians. "Israel is trying to undermine a two-state solution," he said. "It is trying to play down the value of international support for a two-state solution."
He reiterated his position that negotiations will not be resumed as long as settlement construction is not halted entirely. Abbas also recapped the principles that will guide the Palestinians during negotiations: a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as its capital, the release of prisoners, and the right of return for refugees in line with UN Resolution 194.
On Hamas, Abbas said his hand is still extended for reconciliation; he called on the group to sign the Egyptian proposal for ending the conflict with Fatah. "We accepted the Egyptian document and we call on Hamas to accept the deal without reservations," Abbas said. He added that Hamas is waiting for him to resign and hinted that he does not plan to do so before his term ends.
At the end of his address, Abbas made it clear he does not intend to comment on his statements last Thursday regarding his decision not to seek reelection. Thus major question marks remain.
He said there would be "decisions and directions that I will take in the future," but did not give details.
Looking at things from Israel's point of view, Abbas' conduct only reinforces suspicions that his declaration last week was a "hold-me-back" move. Defense officials point out that Abbas had not announced his plans to step down from two other posts: PLO chairman and Fatah head.
These are the sources of authority for any PA president; they basically allow him to continue running things, even if he resigns from the presidency.
Yesterday's rally appears to be an attempt by Abbas to leverage Arafat's memory into support for him as part of his political struggle with Hamas. In any case, Israeli observers say Abbas is keeping all possibilities open, for the time being at least. It's possible that in the end he will step down. This would probably pose a serious problem for Israel, not only because a relatively stable partner would be lost, but also because of the succession struggle that would ensue in Fatah. This could descend into violence that might also be directed against Israel.
In any case, despite the initial impression in the Israeli media after the meeting in Washington between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, it appears the political process is making progress, even if this involves understandings that for the time being have been kept under wraps.
The announcements from the White House and the Prime Minister's Bureau describing the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama as positive were not meant to merely deal with the embarrassment over the difficulties setting up the meeting in the first place.
Both countries seem to have put aside old disagreements. It remains to be seen what influence this will have on Abbas and whether this will rally the PA to favor direct negotiations.
Gray speech, gray character
Abbas began his speech at the Muqata two hours after the event began. The crowd was eager to hear him speak after a series of uneventful addresses by other speakers. All the top members of the Palestinian leadership were there, in addition to thousands of Palestinians from all over the West Bank, including many children whose schools had been closed by edict.
Still, the yard at the Muqata was not packed with people, contrary to what one might expect relying on the Palestinian media. Abbas was cheered when he took the floor, but many in the crowd quickly appeared bored by the long speech. They went back to their business - smoking, joking and eating.
Abbas is not a charismatic speaker, certainly nothing like his predecessor. Arafat knew how to carry the masses. Abbas tired them with endless talk on the negotiations with Israel. Many must have felt nostalgia for Arafat, who knew to promise struggle using slogans that were often empty of content.
Archive clips on Al-Jazeera yesterday only made the differences between the two men appear greater. "They [the Israelis] want me to be a prisoner or an exile. But I tell them no! I will be a shaheed [martyr], shaheed, shaheed!" Arafat's vows are far removed from his successor's style. Abbas' announcement on his possible resignation from the presidency only stresses how, contrary to Arafat, he is not willing to risk his head for the Palestinian problem.