Putting it to the test
Palestinians mostly want Mahmoud Abbas to follow through on his "threat" to step down from office, Saleh Al-Naami finds out, though he is unlikely to
Aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went on the Arab media circuit to reverse the general impression that the president's announcement of his "inclination" to resign was merely a manoeuvre mainly aimed at pressuring the US administration to force Israel to freeze settlements. They also denied that it was a means of repairing Abbas's damaged image after he moved to postpone discussion on the Goldstone Report that accused Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity during its latest assault on Gaza. Some also accused Abbas of making the announcement to ensure he remains in power as long as possible -- especially that Fatah organised several public demonstrations in support of his continuing as president. Many observers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank compared these actions with those of some Arab leaders who want to claim the support of the masses.
Suspicions surrounding Abbas's true intentions affected the debate that followed the announcement. Excluding Fatah spokespeople, political and intellectual observers in the West Bank called on Abbas to concede that his political goals have failed because he insisted that negotiating with Israel was the only solution. Others used the announcement as an opportunity to remind Abbas that when the Oslo Accords were signed, the number of settlers in the West Bank alone was 109,000. Today, 16 years after Oslo, the number of settlers stands at more than 300,000.
Many Palestinians believe that under US President Barack Obama's administration, as expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who stated that a freeze on settlements is not a prerequisite for negotiations, Israel will continue using negotiations as an umbrella to carry on its settlement policy and Judaicisation plans until there is no more land left to discuss.
Scepticism about Abbas's intentions is further compounded because while he quietly criticises Israel's actions he vociferously condemns Hamas. In meetings and media appearances Abbas continued his severe attacks on Hamas, which many observers interpreted as a clear indicator that his resignation announcement will not bring Palestinian national reconciliation closer. At the same time, Abbas has shown unprecedented irritability towards any propinquity between Hamas and Arab parties. It was reported that in closed meetings Abbas imparted that he is angry with the Arab League's secretary- general for refusing to cut contacts with Hamas.
Khaled Meshaal, the chief of Hamas's politburo, urged that Abbas "stop conceding to Israel", and called on him to be honest with the Palestinian people and admit the failure of the negotiations option. "Agreeing to a middle ground with Israel which began in Oslo in 1993 has neither stopped Israeli settlement expansion, nor brought the Palestinians any closer to creating an independent state on land occupied since 1967," Meshaal asserted. "Any leader who is determined about Jerusalem, the right of return, the land, and dismantling settlements must know that the road to these goals is not through negotiations and relying on the Americans, but through jihad, resistance and national unity."
Mohamed El-Hindi, member of the political bureau of the Islamic Jihad, was even more critical of Abbas. "He who admits the failure of his political programme should step down from power instead of making empty threats," he retorted. "The Palestinian cause receded only when the Palestine Liberation Organisation [PLO] launched negotiations with Israel, and Abbas is the most supportive of these talks. He must leave his post after this failure." He added that it is incorrect to focus on the personal aspect of Abbas's announcement because it distorts the truth about his unsuccessful political agenda. "If Abbas was upset by Israel's insistence on settlements, why is he targeting resistance movements in the West Bank and continuing to coordinate with the Israeli army?" questioned El-Hindi.
Many spokespeople of Palestinian factions say that no one actually expects Abbas to call for a return to armed resistance against Israel. At the same time, they cannot understand how Abbas expresses disappointment in Israel's actions but helps the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by hunting down Palestinian resistance fighters in the West Bank while arresting their associates. They assert that the arrests are unrelated to internal divisions. Faction representatives believe that the obvious response to the actions of Israel and the US is for the Ramallah government to end security coordination with occupation forces and support the Palestinian people on their land rather than abandon this responsibility.
This is also the thinking of Fatah leader Hatem Abdel-Qader, who was previously in charge of the Jerusalem portfolio in Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's cabinet but resigned in protest against the compliance of Fayyad's government regarding Israel's crimes in Jerusalem.
Palestinian writer and political analyst Zakaria Mohamed asserted that Abbas's resignation speech was not intended for the Palestinian people, but primarily for the US administration, and for Israel. According to Mohamed, Abbas received a slap on the face from Washington after his announcement when Clinton declared that "the US administration will deal with Abbas in any position he holds." This implied that the US administration would not attempt to appease Abbas in any way.
Mohamed further ridiculed the demonstrations in support of the Palestinian president, saying that they would have been palatable if Abbas's speech was directed to the Palestinian people instead of the Americans. "Abbas is in serious trouble," explained Mohamed. "If he rescinds his abdication he will return a much weaker leader; if he does step down, he will have failed to provide us with a smooth and organised transfer of power." Alternatively, Abbas should have called on the Palestinian people to seek other options since the road of negotiations is blocked, suggested Mohamed. "Abbas's problem is that he cannot accept the fact that he led us down a dead end, which was clearly marked as such at the outset," he asserted. "It was clear since at least 2000, namely after the Camp David II talks, that this road will go nowhere. And it became blatantly obvious to everyone by 2002, when West Bank cities were invaded and [late Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat was placed under siege."
Palestinians generally agree that to be able to respond to US-Israeli actions requires an end to internal divisions. They also agree that it is ironic that one of the obstacles preventing national reconciliation is Abbas's insistence that any Palestinian government must adhere to the conditions of the Quartet, namely the recognition of Israel, renouncing resistance as a form of terrorism, and accepting previously signed agreements with Israel. A pressing question in the Palestinian territories right now is whether Abbas's anger against Israel and the US is authentic -- especially that he continues to promote the Quartet conditions. The consensus is that upholding Quartet provisions rewards Israel.
Even if Abbas was sincere about not contesting the next elections, this does not mean he will step down from office because he has come to realise that it is impossible to hold elections according to the decree he issued earlier. Hence, he will remain de facto president of the Palestinian Authority until elections take place after national reconciliation is achieved. This, however, appears an elusive goal in itself.
Abbas claims not to desire power, but his actions are to the contrary and imply he is willing to go far to hold on to his position. Anyone who followed Fatah's Sixth Congress already knows that Abbas is not serious about stepping down from office, especially that during the gathering he attempted to impose himself as the sole leader of the movement. He also violated the PLO Charter by holding a Palestinian National Council meeting to fill the remaining seats of the PLO without meeting the necessary quorum.