Five months after his resignation, the presence of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) can be felt in every corner of the office of the Palestinian prime minister.
No, Palestine’s first prime minister is not lurking around in Ramallah, he has long disappeared from the public eye. But his shadow, and to be more accurate the shadow of the circumstances that led to his resignation, are looming larger than life.
Ever since he became prime minister, Ahmad Qureia vowed that he will not follow the path of Abu Mazen. He tried hard to work closely with the various groups that publicly expressed unhappiness with Abu Mazen’s policies. Among the groups he met were the young Fateh cadres who he promised to include in his senior Cabinet posts, only, later, to backtrack. He also met with various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to get them to agree to a more permanent ceasefire.
Qureia also vowed not to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in as far as regular meetings with Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon is concerned. Qureia stated that he is not in favour of photo opportunities and that he will only meet Sharon if such a meeting will produce results. The results he wanted changed. At one time, he wanted the meeting to conclude a ceasefire agreement. He supported the talks in Cairo for a unified Palestinian stand, but these talks failed when the request for guarantee for the safety of the leaders of the Palestinian organisations failed to materialise from either Israel or the US.
The new Palestinian prime minister also wanted Israel to freeze settlement activities, as stipulated in the roadmap, and to ease the checkpoints throughout the Palestinian territories. He again failed in his efforts, through his aides, to obtain any promises from the Israelis that they would grant him any of his requests.
Perhaps the most important request made by the new Palestinian leader was his insistence that the Israelis stop building the separation wall, which has taken up so much land and causes major disruption in Palestinian lives. All Qureia had to do was to look outside his home in the Jerusalem district of Abu Dis to realise the major problems this wall is causing to his constituency. His request was, again, in vain. The Israelis, who had refused to heed the requests of the international community or even their strongest allies, the US, were not about to give up building the wall, just to get to meet the new Palestinian prime minister.
With time, it became clear that Qureia had climbed a high tree that he was unable to climb down. He was unable to deliver a promise of unilateral cessation of attacks on the Israelis nor was he able to vow to stop these Palestinian groups while the Israelis were not engaging with him at any serious level.
Worrying about the problems Abu Mazen faced became a major obstacle to any meeting between the Palestinian and Israeli prime minister. The months of public rhetoric had left the Palestinian leader in a helpless situation. He was unwilling to follow in Abu Mazen’s footsteps and meet with Sharon without any conditions or expectations, and, at the same time, he has no intention to disappoint his public or to throw in the towel as Abu Mazen eventually did. Even efforts by the Americans and the Egyptians were unable to resolve this problem. Neither was able to obtain any promise or deliver any substance from the Israelis.
Feeling frustrated with the Israelis and the Americans, Abu Alaa began to look for things he could do to change the losing formula he was facing. One idea that caught his fancy, and which had been circulated by some Palestinian intellectuals for some time, was to talk about a single state for the two peoples. This idea, which clearly plays into the Israeli demographic fears, goes against everything that the Palestinian leadership and the international community have been working on, namely sharing the land rather than sharing the power. Without much preparation, Abu Alaa threw this idea publicly and quickly pulled it back the next day because any logical thinker would understand that for it to become credible, this idea carries with it the danger of an end to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
There is no doubt that the separation wall and the intransigence of the Sharon government are major hindrances for the Palestinian leadership’s efforts to find the most effective way forward. For all its drawbacks, Abu Mazen’s plan was to engage the Israelis in intensive talks that would wear down their opposition. In the absence of any serious alternative, and with the PNA not ready to sacrifice its own existence, there doesn’t seem to be any other alternative for the new prime minister but to go back to the ways of his predecessor and hope for the best.