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Abu Mazen isn’t finished, just yet

The last thing Mahmoud Abbas needed was a pat on the back from his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, shortly after announcing that he would not seek another term as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Peres emotionally said that he understood Abbas’ decision. “It seems as though everyone unjustifiably pelted Abbas with stones”, the Israeli president said. “Everyone upset Abbas, including Israel and the Americans. That is why he is angry!” He then appealed directly to a former foe, now ally: “We both signed the Oslo Accord and I am turning to you now as a colleague: Don’t give up!”

Sources close to the Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman claim that, since his last meeting with Barack Obama in September at the UN, Abbas has angrily spoken to the US president over the telephone twice, saying the same basic thing: “I am fed up!”

Abbas reportedly feels that all of Obama’s promises related to statehood and colonies have vanished into thin air because the US president simply cannot apply the needed pressure on Israel. Abbas had defended Obama aggressively since January, telling the Palestinians to have faith in what he had in store for them. Today, nearly one year down the road, thanks to Obama’s failed promises, Abbas has been transformed into an international embarrassment for the Palestinians. According to top negotiator Saeb Erekat, there has been a 28 per cent increase in colonies in the West Bank under Obama, and 37 per cent of that increase can be found in Occupied Jerusalem.

Making matters more difficult for the Palestinian leader were the words of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently said that freezing colony construction was not a prerequisite for resumption of peace talks with Israel. This explains why Peres called for the immediate resumption of the peace process, hoping that this may cause Abbas to reverse his decision and reconsider.

Abbas’ resignation comes while Hamas is trying to build bridges with the US. Top Hamas leaders, such as Prime Minister Esmail Haniya, have been betting on Abbas’ final hour, projecting themselves as alternative interlocutors willing to sit and talk with Obama and work for peace with Israel. Fatah members were naturally frantic about Hamas’ U-turn, signalled by Haniya last week during a meeting with US doctors visiting Gaza, Fatah members are concerned that if Obama decides to take up the Hamas offer, Fatah will begin its long march into history. Fatah had not yet fully recovered from the aftershocks of the Goldstone Report when Hamas surprised them by extending a hand of friendship to the US president.

Many believe that Abbas’ decision not to run for re-election represents a thundering defeat for Hamas. It is more likely, though, that by declaring his intention to step down, shortly after calling for nationwide elections next January, Abbas is fighting his final battle with Hamas. He plans to settle an old score before leaving office in defeat. Abbas is no fool and he has realized that it is very east for Hamas to discredit him in the eyes of Palestinians. In order to sign any peace accord, Abbas needs not only the cooperation of the US government, but also a military uniform studded with war medals — nationalist credentials to flash before angry Palestinians. Abbas has neither, and that is why he has failed to advance the peace process. Palestinians do not see him as a hardcore nationalist like Yasser Arafat — or the leaders of Hamas.

At 74, he has taken a long, hard look at his political career, built entirely on moderate policies, and realized that he has not been able to significantly advance the Palestinian cause. Arafat reached the same conclusion at age 72, when he turned his back on Oslo and decided to turn a blind eye to, and sometimes support, the intifada that broke out in 2000. It is too late for Abbas to change course with dignity — but he can fight back against those who have worked against him since he became president in 2005.

Young alternative

If a young, nationalistic and charismatic candidate were to emerge from Fatah, then this would put Hamas in a difficult position. The chances are that such a candidate would win, especially in the West Bank. At a stroke, the honeyed words spoken last week by Haniya would become meaningless: Why would the US swallow its pride and talk to Hamas if a new, fresh and credible alternative emerged in Fatah? That is why Hamas’ attention has suddenly shifted away from seeking to postpone the elections of next January to getting Abbas to stay in power — in order to defeat him. A weak Abbas in power is certainly better for Hamas than a strong leader with a new mandate to rule, say for example Mohammad Dahlan, Nasser Al Qudwa (a former foreign minister and Arafat’s nephew), Nabeel Shaath or the unsinkable Marwan Barghouti.

By deciding not to run for office, Abbas has effectively turned Palestinian politics upside down. It saves him the trouble of putting up with Obama’s restraints, shelters him from the anger of the Goldstone Report —and the praise of Peres — and puts a spoke in the wheel of Hamas’ chariot.

Gulf News, 10 November 2009