Abbas’ absence would have a dramatic effect

President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] is known as the Palestinian politician most dedicated to a peacefully negotiated end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His possible absence from the scene could have serious implications for the peace process.

Abu Mazen advocated dialogue between the PLO and Israel at a time when this was taboo within the Palestinian political elite. And when the time came for the first direct Palestinian-Israeli contacts, he was among the most enthusiastic and sought all possible means to establish the secret channel that eventually resulted in the Oslo process. This was in spite of Israel’s official insistence to talk only to Palestinians from the occupied territories, rather than PLO leaders.

Abu Mazen thus became known as the engineer of the Oslo process. After the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the outbreak of violence, he kept his distance until elected as the second president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005, after the passing of Yasser Arafat.

He ran his campaign and won on a ticket of exploiting every chance to return to negotiations and abandon confrontations. But since then, he was either unfortunate or subject to conspiracy. His term coincided with Ariel Sharon’s advent of the unilateral approach that completely disregarded the Palestinian leadership. This approach contributed, among other factors, to a decline in the strength of Fateh and the rise of Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006 with an overwhelming majority.

The only chance to negotiate that Abbas has so far had was the Annapolis process with Ehud Olmert. Yet this turned out to be a false opportunity. US President George W. Bush was approaching the end of his second term in office while Olmert was being constantly weakened by persistent corruption charges that eventually led to his resignation. New Israeli elections brought a far-right government coalition headed by Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

On top of all this, this past month has brought two dramatic blows to Abbas and the Palestinian leadership under him. First was the pressure that caused him to support deferral of a vote on the first ever UN human rights report accusing Israel of war crimes. The second was the dramatic shift in Washington’s position as it has abandoned efforts to ensure an Israeli settlement construction freeze before any resumption of negotiations.

These developments, together with the continuing division between the West Bank and Gaza, have apparently led Abu Mazen to consider not running for re-election in the forthcoming vote that he himself called for January 24. This was first made public when some Fateh Central Committee members leaked to the media that Abbas had told the committee to start looking for an alternative.

The possible absence of Abbas from both the domestic and Palestinian-Israeli scenes will have a dramatic effect simply because he holds the two main leadership positions in the Palestinian political system as president of both the PA and the PLO. Furthermore, Abbas is the cornerstone of the Palestinian peace strategy. Indeed, he is recognized as such by the outside world.

But most importantly, he is the last of what are known as the historical leaders, including Arafat and those closest to him, i.e., the founders of Fateh and the PLO. These leaders have carried enormous symbolic and popular weight. When Arafat died, there was no doubt who would succeed him. But if Abbas goes, there is no one of a similar stature and consequently the battle to succeed him will be tense and destabilizing. This is the last thing the Palestinians and their friends need.

Abu Mazen’s status as the last of his kind may invite some sympathy for his plight, especially from Washington. Instability caused by the absence of Abu Mazen does not suit the American agenda. It may be hoped that the threat not to run for re-election will ensure considerable attention from Washington. The US must understand the need for more sensitivity toward internal Palestinian politics. The Palestinian leadership has been harmed considerably due to the way successive administrations have dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.