To the uncritical eye, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas looks like an ordinary statesman residing over an equally ordinary political reality.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I disinterestedly watched Abbas accompany Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter’s “historic” visit to Ramallah in the West Bank on April 29, 2005, I was harassed by this disconcerting thought: no matter what path of politics Abbas chooses, his efforts are doomed.
There are several ideas that ought to be pondered. The focal idea deals with Abbas himself, his legitimacy and political credence as a leader. Other ideas examine his political surroundings, the internal and external pressures and balances of power.
Unlike late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Abbas lacks legitimacy. Legitimacy here is defined according to the prevailing definition employed by successive Palestinian generations throughout their revolt: a leader whose past record proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, his adherence to the constants of the Palestinian struggle. Abbas hardly fits that designation.
Worse, since the eruption of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Abbas and a small clique of individuals within the ranks of the Palestinian Authority were utterly clear in their objection to the popular uprising. Their doubts created disunity and threatened to transform the theoretical clash into a physical one. That possibility cannot be dismissed even today.
Left to fight and die alone for nearly five years, the Palestinian people are browbeaten and fatigued. While this realisation should hardly be interpreted as the end of the Palestinian struggle as we know it, it must serve as a context that delineates the relationship between Abbas and his Palestinian constituency. Palestinians are not fond of Abbas; they simply see him as a last resort and, frankly, a dignified way out, even if temporarily.
According to a study conducted by US-based writer Jennifer Lowenstein, by the end of 2004, in Gaza alone, 28,483 Palestinians were made homeless as a result of Israel’s wholesale destruction of Palestinian dwellings throughout the Gaza Strip. Considering the extreme poverty residing in this tiny stretch of land already, coupled with other many-sided oppressive Israeli military practices which wrought untold death and devastation, one can only begin to understand why the arrival of Abbas, as unpromising and compromising as he may seem, constitutes an ironic opportunity of some sort.
But without overriding legitimacy, Abbas’ mandate as far as the Palestinian people is concerned is quite limited. The man has the reputation of being too flexible on issues that cannot be subject to bargain, the right of return of Palestinian refugees being one.
Abbas’ dilemma hardly ends here. It barely begins. The urgent yet difficult question to answer is: How can Abbas adhere to Palestinian expectations of full sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the removal of Israeli settlements to the last one, among others, at a time when the envisaged peace scenario by the United States and Israel violates these demands to the last one?
In fact, the Palestinian prerequisite for a just and lasting peace seems almost entirely different from the Israeli, and thus American, interpretation. Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration are insistent in their disregard for the principal understanding of the roots of the conflict, as defined by international law, being the illegal Israeli confiscation and occupation of Palestinian land.
For Sharon, the occupation is a non-issue for, according to his reasoning, Palestinians are in fact the intruders on the biblically promised land of Israel. If he wishes to evacuate a few settlements from Gaza, the motivations are decidedly strategic, and have to do more with demographics than moral imperatives. For George Bush, on the other hand, it’s all about Israel’s security, and how his continuous support for Israel shall ensure the patronage of Israel’s very influential friends in the Congress, lobby groups and media pundits.
Abbas understands that his days as a statesman will last as long as Sharon will have no convincing reason to render him “irrelevant” — as he did with Arafat — or take him out of the political equation altogether — as he did to hundreds of assassinated Palestinian activists and leaders. And as long as Abbas agrees with Washington’s view on the disarming and dismantling of resistance and militant groups as a top priority, he will remain a welcomed friend on the Texas ranch. Otherwise, Arafat’s bombed out basement office in Ramallah will have to suffice.
Abbas also understands that regional alliances are of no great value, at least as far as breaking Washington and Israel’s dominion over the entire political equation is concerned.
The PA president is clearly aware of his dilemmas, thus his overly enthusiastic response to Putin’s Ramallah visit. The Russian president is hoping to break away from the foreign policy blunders in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan by reviving his country’s once influential role in the Middle East. The Globe and Mail is already predicting a “rebirth of the cold war”, as a result of the Russian venture, a war that the United States would do its most to avert and Russia lacks both the means and the will to fight.
The coming months will only exasperate Abbas’ problems. Israel has given him no victory, however symbolic, to claim and is not be expected to do so. Poverty in Gaza and elsewhere in the West Bank will grow due to increasing unemployment, as any progress in the Palestinian economy remains an exclusively Israeli decision. The popularity of the Islamic movements, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, will continue to rise and translate into elections successes, parallel to the incessant demands from Israel and the United States to crush those same parties.
It’s only a matter of time before Abbas decides to end his balancing act and confront his problems head on. But will he choose to lock horns with fellow Palestinians to prolong his illusionary reign in power, or will he decide to face up to Israel’s disregard for rightful Palestinian demands and the blind US support of Sharon’s anti-peace policies?
Abbas’ dilemma is most arduous.
* Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist. He is the author of the upcoming volume entitled, “A Force to Be Reckoned With: Writings on Al-Aqsa Intifada.”