Abbas's popularity takes a leap
Hailed as a hero, Mahmoud Abbas appears to have won the PR battle waged at the UN, though now the words must be acted upon, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressing the 66th UN General Assembly
Hassan waited more than 10 minutes outside the stationary shop on Friday before the shop owner opened the door to let him in. The vendor and a group of his neighbourhood shopkeeper friends were transfixed on a small television screen in the shop, listening to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's address at the UN General Assembly.
The shopkeeper and his friends were not the only ones in Al-Nossayrat Refugee Camp, the second largest camp in the Gaza Strip, who stopped work to follow events at the UN. The camp, which is usually bustling with activity, appeared as if it was under curfew, since almost everyone wanted to listen to Abbas's historic speech. What he said was well received on the Palestinian street and highly praised by large sections of the population.
Intissar, a college student, told the Weekly that "this was the first time that Abbas adopts the Palestinian cause forcefully and unequivocally, by truthfully revealing Israel's actions for what they are. I believe that if Abbas continues on this track he will become a national leader and hero."
Some Palestinians were angry with the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who were quick to slam and criticise Abbas's move. Ahmed, a teacher at a school in central Gaza, could not fathom why Hamas and Islamic Jihad adopted the same positions as Israel and the US regarding Abbas's plan and speech. "Enough bickering," he told the Weekly. "I expected Hamas and Jihad to stand behind Abbas in confronting Israel and the US. There is a dire and pressing need for the two groups to change their attitudes entirely to become more patriotic and not so partisan."
But there are still those who doubt Abbas's intentions and expect him to deviate from the positions he declared in his speech. Khaled, who works at a government agency in Gaza, believes that after his address Abbas should now demonstrate that he has genuinely changed his outlook. The most important step would be to order Palestinian Authority (PA) security agencies to immediately halt all cooperation with Israel on security issues.
Only a minority of Palestinians would agree with Khaled; even those that disagree with Abbas on other levels cannot accept the hostile positions of their leaders towards the president. Ahmed Youssef, a leading figure in Hamas who previously served as political adviser to Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, disapproved of his group's position and its decision to ban any activities in the Gaza Strip that support Abbas's move. "No one accepts Hamas rejection of a step that is supported by the Arab nation, the Islamic Conference, Turkey and most world countries," Youssef argued. "Hamas must reconsider its position entirely."
Nassereddin Al-Shaer, former deputy prime minister and minister of education in Haniyeh's government, who is also a young leader in Hamas, did not hesitate to telephone Abbas in New York to express his support and praise the positions stated in his speech. It was clear that the positive response on the Palestinian street caught Hamas off guard and forced it to retract, especially after Abbas asserted that he will pursue national reconciliation.
Yehia Moussa, a leading Hamas figure and deputy leader of the group's parliamentary bloc, welcomed Abbas's position: "What is needed now is for words to become action," Moussa told the Weekly. "Restoring national unity is the guarantee needed to recover national rights, and we must invest all our efforts to accomplish this mission." He added that the positions expressed by the US and Israel during the UN General Assembly session clearly demonstrate that the PA cannot rely on current options.
Moussa indicated that Hamas criticised Abbas for going to the UN without coordinating the step with his partners on the Palestinian arena, making it a "non-consensual" move that does not serve national reconciliation.
Moussa emphasised that what is needed now is the implementation of the reconciliation agreement that was signed by Fatah and Hamas several months ago, especially restructuring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) along new national and democratic principles to transform it into a national institution that truly represents all the Palestinian people. He added that it is pertinent to quickly form a coalition government to manage the affairs of areas under the PA's control during the interim phase that precedes elections. He added that agreement on the person who will head this government and its programme is something that was agreed upon in the Cairo deal.
Khalil Shaheen, a writer, believes that the mass welcome of Abbas upon his return from New York indicates that the Palestinian people no longer accept a return to "farcical" negotiations under any circumstances. "Abbas's reception proves that the people uphold national principles, and the people must embrace all the steps that the leadership takes, whether by transferring the entire Palestinian issue to the UN and international agencies or implementing the reconciliation agreement."
Meanwhile, it was revealed that Abbas threatened US President Barack Obama that he would dissolve the PA if he were unable to implement his political programme. Israeli television reported on Sunday that the US administration and Europe informed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on the sidelines of his visit to the UN, that Abbas is about to take decisive steps -- including dissolving the PA -- if real progress is not achieved on Palestinian statehood and the future of talks with Israel.
The television report quoted informed Israeli political sources as saying that Abbas was unyielding in his response to Obama's "firm" demand not to submit the Palestinian request to the Security Council for full UN membership.
Abbas maintained that the Palestinian people "are fed up with negotiations that Israel uses to impose facts on the ground" and that he will not "betray his people's cause and become a bridge for realising Israel's expansionist dreams." The sources said that US officials told Israel's representatives that Israel will face "a real catastrophe" if Abbas carries out his threat of dissolving the PA, adding that Abbas made it clear to the Americans that the PA refuses to be in the service of Israel.
Sources said Abbas told Obama: "We created the PA for the sake of peace and protecting the rights of our people, not squandering them. I am not willing to be remembered in the history of my people and the Arab world as the one responsible for Israel's continued murderous and destructive policies against peace in the region." Sources continued that Obama and his advisers closely listened to Abbas's speech at the UN, and the White House was stunned by the entire address. The US administration is in consultations with Arab countries to avoid any negative backlash that could affect Washington's credibility if it uses its veto power in the Security Council to block Palestine's membership of the UN.
Meanwhile, Palestinian media reported on Monday morning that a Palestinian official said that Obama threatened Abbas that he would hold him directly responsible if a single drop of US blood is spilled if Washington is forced to use its veto power, since a US veto could mean that Arab masses would attack US interests in the region.
It is obvious that Abbas's popularity has risen sharply and he was able restore his stature as a patriotic Palestinian leader. But continued support for him by the Palestinian masses will depend on him not returning to the negotiating table and implementing the reconciliation agreement