Friday, 29 February 2008

ABBAS NEEDS A MIRACLE - RAMZY BAROUD

Abbas heading in a 'lose-lose' scenario
2006 Ramzy Baroud

Palestine Chronicle
February 28, 2008

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 — the undertaking
was doomed from the start.

For Olmert the issue demographics remains. He told Israeli daily Ha’aretz 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 a new one. Leading South Africans
themselves were the first to make the comparison, and Israel’s history of
aiding and abetting the 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 Uprising singled Abbas out at an untrustworthy opportunist.
Late professor Edward Said once called him 'moderately corrupt.’ The formidable
intellectual died before seeing the moderate corruption of Abbas morphing 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 Press office on February 19 showed
both leaders leaving another futile meeting in Jerusalem, with Olmert — aware
of the cameras flashing all around them — holding an umbrella for the widely
grinning Abbas. The post card-like scenario is of course part of the continuing
charade of peace talks, deadlines and deadline extensions, interrupted by
temporary quarrels, which are sorted out by US envoys before resuming more
talks.

But how long can Abbas and Olmert carry on with this charade?

For Olmert, the objective and endgame are clear: stall until a 'solution’ can
be finalised and imposed on the Palestinians. This in turns depends on the
finalisation of the construction of the illegal settlements, the wall and the
network of Jewish-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’ record of unconditionally backing Israeli policies, Olmert
will remain in a relatively safe spot, regardless of which major 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 essentially means ensuring Palestinian disunity, fighting Hamas, and
remaining a pawn in the US’ imaginative view of the entire region (whereby
'moderates’ stand united against 'extremists’ and 'rejectionists’).

Yet, unlike other Arab 'moderates’, Abbas lacks all 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. Mohammed Dahlan is already acting with the
air of presidency. Now based in Egypt, he 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’ political bureau in
Damascus told Aljazeera.net on February 19 that despite Hamas’ insistence on
the inclusion of Marwan 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 swaps, Israel has removed the latter’s name from the list,
at Abbas’ behest.

Abbas’ 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 Abed Rabbo, the Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee
told Reuters in an interview on February 20 — views which he repeated to AFP
and Palestinian radio in Arabic — 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’ answer was his intent to continue negotiating, and that he was
"optimistic and hopeful."

It’s unclear where from Abbas’ hope originates. He stands on very shaky
grounds, not only in his conditional 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. But 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 Europeans are
reportedly rethinking their stance on Hamas, which the EU had deemed
'terrorist’.

If Abbas, however, tried to rethink his relations with Hamas, he would be
abandoned by Israel and the US, and might find himself a victim of a calculated
coup led by his party’s strongmen. If he continues with the charade of endless
and futile talks with Israel, the patience of his people would eventually run
out. Considering all of this — Abbas’ shared responsibly for the plight of
Gaza, his anti-democratic legacy and his inability to reunite his faltering
party — the president seems condemned to a lose-lose scenario, one which would
take no less than a miracle to put right.

-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and
journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A
Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London).

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