Who Could Lead Palestinians Better Than Abbas?

If progress is not made in the peace process in the coming months, this will almost certainly be Mahmoud Abbas' last year in office.

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

On Saturday, Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the sixth anniversary of his inauguration as president, or as the official title goes, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. If in the coming months the negotiations on a permanent status agreement continue to wither on the vine as the settlements continue to send out green shoots, this will almost certainly be his last year in office.

The American administration has marked September 2011 as the crucial date. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made every effort to besmirch Abbas, says the president has of late made much use of the phrase "I'm fed up." True seekers of a democratic and Jewish Israel living in peace alongside an independent Palestine will miss him.

"If we get rid of [Yasser] Arafat," former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit promised in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth at the end of 2001, "there is no one who will step into his shoes as someone who opens doors to world leaders, and the Palestinian issue will drop from the international agenda."

Shavit also described Abbas as being from the Bahai "ethnic group" (rather than religion ) and his chances of succeeding Arafat were therefore just as high as a Samaritan's chances of getting elected president of Israel.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Abbas "a plucked chicken." To ensure the new president would not gain any altitude, Sharon insisted the disengagement plan would disregard his existence and chose to serve up the Gaza Strip to Hamas.

Abbas found himself landed with a quarrelsome Palestinian leadership and a PA filled with Arafat's yes-men. The security organizations were addicted to the "revolving door" culture and to receiving baksheesh in envelopes. Hamas was sending tentacles into the West Bank and threatening to make it a clone of Gaza. U.S. President George W. Bush allowed Israel to dissociate itself from his road map. The European Union was fawning to the Americans, while the Arab countries did their duty by issuing empty threats to withdraw the Arab League's peace initiative.

Six years later, the government of Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is going down in the textbooks as a model of an establishment fulfilling its civil and security goals under foreign occupation. Neither man hesitates to condemn the use of terror or disassociate himself publicly from the Al-Aqsa intifada. Objective security services, headed by Israeli representatives, are full of praise for their colleagues in Nablus, Jenin and Hebron.

The xenophobia on the part of the establishment and the rabbis has denied Israel the credibility to complain of incitement in the Palestinian media. At a time when unilateral moves by Israel, first and foremost the expansion of the Jewish settlements and the undermining of the status quo in Jerusalem are perceived as violating international law and the international consensus, a unilateral Palestinian move - receiving international recognition of Palestine - is perceived abroad as legitimate.

One after another, more countries are declaring their recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and upping the level of the PLO legations in their capitals. (About 100 countries that were members of the Non-Aligned Movement declared their recognition 22 years ago, in the wake of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Palestine Liberation Organization's recognition of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.) Fayyad has not hesitated to declare the establishment of an international airport in the West Bank - a definite indicator of sovereignty.

Abbas' musings on retirement stem from his increasing frustration with the Obama administration's limp policy (if expressing disappointment with Defense Minister Ehud Barak can even be called a "policy"). The U.S. president is sticking to his refusal to declare that the negotiations be based on the 1967 borders. Moreover, the Americans are refraining from issuing any report on the positions held by each side, or from revealing who has shown a map of a permanent status agreement and offered an outline of security arrangements, and who is plucking excuses out of thin air to maintain diplomatic ambiguity.

The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, who was invited to Washington along with Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu's representative, reported over the weekend that the Americans are looking for "new ways" to get out of the dead end. These efforts cannot continue indefinitely.

This March, when the heads of the Arab League will convene in Iraq to discuss their 2002 peace initiative, Abbas will be celebrating his 76th birthday. If the most pragmatic Palestinian leader we've seen in recent years admits he has failed, who will we get in his stead?



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