Abbas’ backward agenda: all constants and no variables

President George W. Bush welcomes Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, to the Oval Office Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005. (Photo: White House/Eric Draper)

Leaders tend to stay at home in moments of crises. If caught out of their countries when trouble develops, they rush back. Nothing enhances the confidence of people in their leaders more than when they see them amongst them in hard times. This does not seem to be the case with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He embarked on an Arab and world tour just when at home he is most needed: his government is facing a possible no-confidence vote in the Palestinian assembly, and violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians.

While en route from Amman to Cairo, the first two stops in a diplomatic marathon which takes him to France, Spain and finally to Washington, serious developments occurred at home: Israeli occupation forces last Sunday assassinated a Palestinian resistance leader, and Palestinian fighters attacked Israeli settlers south of Bethlehem, killing three and injuring four more. As expected, Israel retaliated by applying additional and harsher restrictions on all Palestinians under occupation, the usual collective punishment measures, including tighter closures on the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, more road blocks and restriction of movement, and a total ban on the use of private Palestinian vehicles on main roads. This surely will worsen a situation already very grave, and will dispel any remaining hope that the Gaza disengagement was bound to lead to some relaxation of the occupation measures.

Such developments occur at a time that could not be more critical for Abbas. Instead of seeking to rally Arab, European and American support for his endeavour to revive a stalled peace process by urging his hosts to exert real pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his hardline government to meet its obligations as defined in the roadmap, Abbas will find himself under pressure to meet his own obligations towards the resuscitation of any meaningful peace talks, obligations such as controlling the deteriorating security situation in most of the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, including of course the disarming and the dismantling of the infrastructure of the “terrorist” organisations.

Only the Palestinian attacks on the Israeli settlers, not any Israeli attacks on Palestinians, will be cited as violations of the truce. Simply because the truce was voluntarily offered by the Palestinians to their occupiers, who neither accepted it as a bilateral arrangement nor promised to observe it, the Israeli actions are considered nothing but legitimate acts of self-defence. On the basis of this lopsided logic, the ‘aggressors’ and the ‘violators’ of the truce are always the Palestinians. And since Abbas, and his predecessor, have on more than one occasion agreed to stop Palestinian “terror”, there is little they can do now to disentangle themselves from this obligation.

No one can doubt Abbas’ credentials as a leader who campaigned openly and quite fiercely against any armed resistance to the occupation. He opposed arming the Intifada, calling for it to stop. (The insistence on the right of the Palestinian people to resist occupation by other means was no more than ritual lip service which involved no harm.) He did that before and after he was elevated to the chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority. He also delivered on his promise to convince the resistance factions and the armed groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to accept an open-ended truce, not only without any Israeli reciprocation, but also without any promise that there will be a political process to which the truce would serve as an overture.

So far the truce has been strictly observed by the Palestinians, except when strongly provoked by repeated Israeli aggression, which is probably designed to provoke violent retaliation to expose further the vulnerability of the Palestinian Authority and its leaders and to keep it under the kind of international pressure Abbas is currently facing.

What Abbas has been unable to do — unable but possibly not unwilling — is to disarm the resistance factions because he repeatedly warned that such a move would precipitate a Palestinian civil war. Nevertheless, the dilemma for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority remains acute. When he was confronted with the repeated question of how he risked all his cards while Sharon was openly declaring his expansionist plans as well as his avowed reluctance against any peace settlement, tolerating only an open-ended unarmed truce, Abbas replied that he counted on American and European support and on their promises to implement the roadmap. He often cited firm promises from President George W. Bush and probably he believed in their political value.

Abbas has always based his strategy on foreign support and he largely considered that his only political asset. His constituency has mainly been abroad and that is why in times of crises, and while other leaders head home, he heads in the opposite direction, exactly as he is doing now.

Abbas will most certainly ask the Europeans and the Americans to do something for peace in the Middle East. He will surely explain the difficulties he and his government are facing. The Palestinian Authority’s legislative council is debating the fate of the Qureia government which is blamed for the security chaos which continues to mount in the Palestinian controlled areas. Abbas will also explain the difficulties the Sharon government is causing him, pushing events into a vicious cycle: Israeli provocations lead to Palestinian retaliation which, on the one hand, constitutes a challenge to the authority of the Palestinian Authority, and of course an embarrassment, and on the other, leads to more collective punishment measures taken by Israel against all the Palestinians. This, in turn, adds to the Palestinian people’s anger and frustration and further exposes the failure of the authority to protect its people and control the resulting mounting chaos.

By relying on foreign support, Abbas seems to have missed two crucial segments of the political equation. One is that neither the Europeans nor Washington are in a position to confront Sharon who dictates the region’s agenda on his own. This is a fact that should be impossible to miss. All those on whom Abbas wagered follow Sharon’s direction. This is not a guess, it is the empirically proven truth. The second missing segment is that dependence on a foreign constituency for serving national interests produces adverse results because of the obvious contradiction between the requirements needed to satisfy each side: any movement in the direction of one distances you from the other.

In light of all this, it is hard to imagine that Abbas will return home with any political gains. He will be urged to control the trouble makers amongst his people, most likely not because those who offer such advice believe in its political value but because they have nothing better to offer and lack all courage when it comes to confronting Israel.

In a situation where there are only constants and no variables the outcome can hardly change.

Ambassdor Hasan Abu Nimah is the former Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations.