Abbas: The man and the politician

The Palestinian president was never meant to be a revolutionary leader but he must now rise to a historic challenge.

mahmoud abbas
Mahmoud Abbas, right, was never supposed to be a leader in the mould of the late Yasser Arafat [GALLO/GETTY]

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has insisted that he will withdraw from direct talks with Israel if it does not extend its freeze on settlement building when it expires on September 26.

The pledge was intended to placate widespread opposition to the resumption of negotiations from within both Hamas and Abbas’ own Fatah group. But his promises are unlikely to make a dent in the growing disillusionment with a ‘peace process’ many see as providing cover for continued Israeli expansion. And, coming after he backed down on his vow to boycott the talks without a prior Israeli commitment to extending the freeze, Abbas’ words are lacking in credibility.

It is, in fact, the words of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that today ring louder and clearer in the ears of Palestinians. “You don’t need to worry. Nobody needs to teach me what it is to love Eretz Israel,” he told Likud party members before leaving for Washington. His use of the term ‘Eretz Israel’ – meaning the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan – implies that he has no intention of giving up control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and, consequently, will not allow the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.

So, while Israelis may have nothing to worry about, Palestinians most certainly do and Abbas has failed to reassure even his own supporters that he will not succumb to Israeli and American pressure.

Abbas the politician

At this point it might seem tempting to say that the Palestinian president simply has to go – after all he has failed to act as a leader to a people who deserve a courageous representative. But when the Palestinians elected Abbas it was not as a revolutionary leader but as a politician suited to the post-Oslo era.

Mahmoud Abbas must now show that he can withstand US and Israeli pressure [GALLO/GETTY]

Fatah too knew what it was doing when it selected Abbas as its presidential candidate – the group needed somebody who could deal with Israel and the West while it rebuilt itself. At least that was the idea of one of the main advocates of an “Abbas presidency” in 2006. Farouk Kadoumi, the co-founder of Fatah who rejected the Oslo Accords, told me then that Fatah needed to separate the process of negotiations from the process of bolstering its organisational structure.

He believed that Abbas’ acceptability to the West would “spare Fatah a right on collision with Israel and America while giving Fatah a chance to recover from the high costs, in terms of losses of lives and leaders who ended up in Israeli jails, after the Second Intifada”.

Fatah officials close to Abbas say that when he took the decision to participate in the talks he did so because he believed the Palestinians could not afford to appear to reject the negotiations when it is Israel that is really sabotaging the process. For its part, Fatah says it has given him conditional support but no mandate to sign an agreement.

Some are calling for Hamas to be included in the talks – or even to replace the PA as the representative of the Palestinian people. And while the West’s decision to exclude Hamas is completely unacceptable, Hamas and other actors should enter negotiations only when entirely different terms have been established – terms built around Palestinian unity and consensus. For the time being, Hamas’ position is made stronger by not participating.

Most of Abbas’ opponents do not fear that he will surrender any Palestinian rights in Washington – largely because it is clear Israel will not make any offers that could feasibly be considered. But they are afraid that he might reach another interim compromise that will only consolidate Israeli political and military control over the Palestinians.

For example, it has been reported that the Americans are pushing a proposal that would see Israel extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlements while allowing the expansion of “major settlement blocs”. Such an arrangement would effectively mean accepting Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This would have dangerously permanent implications and serve Netanyahu’s vision of a fragmented Palestinian state devoid of any real sovereignty.

Abbas the man

Abbas is fully aware that he goes to Washington with many Palestinians, including some of those closest to the PA, viewing him as having at best surrendered and at worst as being a traitor.

He was badly shaken when, in the wake of his initial support for a postponement of the discussion on the Goldstone report, his grandson came to him crying and explained that children at his school had called his grandfather a “traitor”.

And it is well known that Abbas has checked into a Jordanian hospital on more than one occasion suffering from exhaustion and stress brought on by a process he once had faith in but which has delivered only pain to his people.

When he tried to resign, Fatah members convinced him to stay on – largely because nobody else wants to take responsibility for the mess that the ‘peace process’ has become.

As a private person, Abbas, who is from Safad – where most of the residents were expelled in 1948 – sounds just like any other Palestinian in his anger over his dispossession, his bitterness at American bias and his hopes for self-determination. But ultimately this is not about him.

The challenges and dangers facing the Palestinians are now so huge that it is time for all of the Palestinian leaders – from the PA and the opposition – to rise up to this historic responsibility or go home.

So, for the very first time Abbas is risking it all by going to Washington. But this is also an opportunity to gain some credibility and support by sticking to his mandate and the popular consensus by saying ‘no’.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera