The advantage of the weak

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has set a date, January 24, for new presidential and parliamentary elections. But he has also threatened not to run for reelection–in other words, to resign and let the West Bank public choose his successor. Herein lies the troubled confluence of a host of issues. Only after analyzing them can we look at the bottom line and ask who would gain and who would lose were Abu Mazen to depart the Palestinian political scene.

By virtue of the inherent weakness of his position, Abu Mazen has seemingly maneuvered himself into a corner. By the most liberal of constitutional interpretations, his term is up in January. Elections held under present conditions will take place only in the West Bank, however, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and rendering more permanent the "three state" reality of separate Palestinian entities in the West Bank and Gaza. If, on the other hand, the election threat finally persuades Hamas to sign on to the Egyptian-sponsored unity framework, then elections will ostensibly be postponed until June but Hamas will participate and could win.

Abu Mazen also appears to be the last believer in the Obama vision for the region. US President Barack Obama promised a settlement freeze and Abu Mazen endorsed it. Now Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praises as "unprecedented" PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s offer to build "only" 3,000 dwellings in settlements and a few more in East Jerusalem in the coming nine months and seemingly doesn’t understand why Abu Mazen won’t come on board. This, after the Palestinian leader lost considerable public support because he allowed himself to be persuaded by Obama first to meet with Netanyahu in Washington, then not to make an issue of the Goldstone report.

The Israeli-Palestinian juggling of roles embodied in all this peace process maneuvering is mindboggling. With Ehud Olmert, Abu Mazen agreed to negotiate despite settlement building, got an extremely generous offer and turned it down. With Netanyahu, Abu Mazen wants a total settlement freeze, knows that if and when negotiations begin he will not get anything approaching the Olmert offer, yet insists Netanyahu pick up from the point where the talks with Olmert were ended by Abu Mazen himself.

Meanwhile, the overall economic and security situation in the West Bank can be characterized as positive, not least because Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been removing roadblocks and checkpoints. Yet this development does not prevent many observers from speculating that the current stalemate is liable to launch a third intifada (we recall that outbreaks of Palestinian violence have usually taken place when times are good economically). Against this convoluted backdrop, resignation may be the only straightforward move Abu Mazen has to offer.

Yet, he is only threatening to resign, and he has done that before. Few Palestinians appear to take him seriously. The threat is presumably meant to prompt everybody else, in Washington, Jerusalem and Gaza, to do so. So far, judging by Clinton’s embrace of Netanyahu’s stance on settlements and Hamas’ refusal to come to Cairo and sign, it appears not to be working.

But what if Abu Mazen does resign? After all, he has on occasion followed through on his threats and walked away from office. Who gains and who loses?

Washington loses a peace partner, albeit one whose hard line on core issues like Jerusalem and refugees probably precludes the kind of comprehensive agreement Obama wants to produce within two years. Netanyahu also loses a peace partner, but the Israeli prime minister in any case does not appear to be really interested in a deal with the Palestinians or capable of carrying one out. On the other hand, if Abu Mazen’s departure ends up ushering in violence in the form of a new intifada, Netanyahu will be held to blame and will have to answer to the Israeli public. Israelis will miss Abu Mazen, who is uncompromising in his rejection of Palestinian violence.

If Abu Mazen resigns, Hamas gains from a setback to Palestinian morale in the West Bank and possibly from ensuing unrest or worse. Egypt’s efforts to bring about Palestinian unity and ultimately weaken Hamas are also thwarted.

This is all bad news. And it could come to pass unless Abu Mazen’s refusal to run in the elections he has called causes Obama and Netanyahu to think again, recognize that Abu Mazen enjoys the advantage of the weak and offer him sufficient concessions and benefits to enable him to get out of the corner.