Abu Mazen: America’s Tribute to Hafez Assad

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R), shakes hands with the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice following a joint press conference after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 25 July 2006. (MaanImages/Mushir Abdelrahman)


The late Hafez Assad had “his Palestinians.” Ideologically divergent, they served politically to forestall any move by the PLO towards a negotiated settlement with Israel and personally to thwart the man Assad loathed like no other: Yasser Arafat.

Surely few in my generation have even heard of the personalities comprising the Palestinian face of Assad’s crusade. Abu Musa, a celebrated Palestinian commander early in the Lebanon War, in 1983 led his breakaway Fateh faction into battle against what remained of Arafat’s PLO in the wake of Begin and Sharon’s slaughter a year prior. Thanks to Syrian patronage, his combat victory led him into total obscurity and into early retirement in Damascus. Ahmed Jibril, a Palestinian-born Syrian military officer whose Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) broke from George Habash’s PLFP and later from the PLO entirely largely on the issue of Syrian clientage, similarly led his organization into irrelevance.

If anything, the Syrian groups deserve recognition as the vanguard of the Palestinian national movement’s plunge into a moral abyss from which it has never fully emerged. Special mention is owed to the PFLP-GC’s string of raids targeting children in northern Israel in the early 1970s. The “Damascus alliance” of Palestinian leftist groups took Assad’s bait, its acts of barbarism sufficient to wipe out Arafat’s efforts to force a political compromise on Israel, starting with the binational secular state outlined in the PLO’s Ten-Point Programme of 1974.

George Bush and Condoleezza Rice have “their Palestinian.” He is Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas).

Ideologically, he bears nothing in common with the aforementioned Syrian puppetry. His nom de guerre is the signature of a generation that, it must be remembered, led the Palestinians back from certain extinction by a combination of diplomacy, publicity, and armed resistance. Abu Mazen was there from day one, and remained Arafat’s technocratic deputy through the PLO’s successive exiles until its arrival in Gaza in 1994.

Abu Mazen is neither a fighter nor a leader. Since Israel renewed its destruction of Gaza last month, killing more than 200 Palestinians, seemingly the only mention of him has come in the context of Rice’s deluded musings on a “new Middle East.”

But Abu Mazen is neither a fighter nor a leader. Since Israel renewed its destruction of Gaza last month, killing more than 200 Palestinians, seemingly the only mention of him has come in the context of Rice’s deluded musings on a “new Middle East.” As America’s allies from Great Britain to Jordan try to impress on it Palestine’s centrality in the Middle East’s troubles, the U.S. demurs by playing the Abu Mazen card just as Hafez Assad played the Palestinian rejectionist card.

The American game, of course, has an added twist: the guise of democracy. Since Yasser Arafat’s death in November 2004, there have been two elections in occupied Palestine and one in Israel, the latter preceded by a lame-duck government after Sharon’s stroke. Israel’s failure in Lebanon may spell the collapse of the governing coalition and prompt yet another poll.

In the Palestinian elections, months of arm-twisting over freedom of movement within Palestinian territory on election day, the voting privileges of East Jerusalem residents, etc., accompanies the vote. Invariably, it is the Americans who broker a compromise and salvage for the Palestinians the right to elect a “government” under occupation. During the Israeli election season the U.S. bows out of the conflict altogether, for it knows that Israeli politicians, especially those without military credentials, win elections by doing violence to the Palestinians during the campaign.

The effect is that, in nearly two years of having an uncompromised “partner for peace,” the U.S. has presided over an endless series of transitions and issues tangential at best to the question of occupation. And Abu Mazen has taken the bait time and time again, spending nearly all of his time and political capital on minutia related to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza or reversing whatever new restriction the Israelis impose over the Palestinian Bantustans on the West Bank.

This is not a personal attack on Abu Mazen. Although he has reportedly profited handsomely from the Oslo regime, its government-controlled industries, monopolies, and murky dealings with Israeli suppliers, I would hesitate to lump him with the kleptocrats that populate the Authority. As the chief Palestinian architect of the Declaration of Principles and the aborted, infamous Abu Mazen-Beilin Plan of 1995, he unfairly bears the weight of Palestinian discontent with the Oslo process, which reflected the PLO’s weakness after a series of costly alliances.

The problem is that the Palestinians’ standing today, far weaker today than in 1992 and weaker yet with each passing day, seems lost on Abu Mazen, who persists in calling for negotiations.

The problem is that the Palestinians’ standing today, far weaker today than in 1992 and weaker yet with each passing day, seems lost on Abu Mazen, who persists in calling for negotiations. The understanding apparently reached by Israel, the U.S., and the European donor community is to allow just enough aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster and just enough cash for Authority salaries - the right Authority salaries - to keep its emblem of the “new Middle East” afloat. Israeli professor Neve Gordon has coined this the “Somalia Plan” and predicts an outcome worthy of its name, with warlords dominating what remains of Gaza’s resources.

Abbas’ response, a unified negotiating position based on the prisoners’ document, and backed by the threat of a referendum on the text, came after he lost control of the government and was losing popular support for his inability to forestall U.S. and Israeli punishment for the election result. What would have been a bold try at national unity several months earlier was instead mere saber-rattling, because a constitutional crisis would have been the prelude to a power struggle he knew he couldn’t win.

Abu Mazen gets by as the anti-Arafat. No military uniform, no kaffiyeh, no false choice between the freedom fighters’ gun and the olive branch. But, legitimate though his presentation may be, his appeal to the U.S. and Israel is his weakness. Hitching the Palestinians’ fate to the U.S. presidency might have been a strategy during the Clinton years. On Bush’s list of Mideast priorities, however, the Palestine-Israel conflict ranks no higher than fifth, behind Iraq, Iran, Syria, and stemming the growth of the region’s Islamic movements. With the U.S. eyeing Syria, or more ambitiously Iran, as it eyed Iraq four years ago, and using Israel as a partner or even a proxy in its military adventurism, a continuation of this “strategy” is an utter failure of leadership.

Abu Mazen must see himself as a transitional figure, his greatest challenge to save the national movement from the extremists in its ranks, from moral bankruptcy, and from international abandonment. But there is nothing transitional about Israel’s settlement expansion, Judaization of Jerusalem, and ethnic cleansing-by-regulation on the West Bank. Since he cannot halt the erosion of Palestine, he must stand down and deny the U.S. political cover for its support of a brutal military occupation. Oslo ended Hafez Assad’s ability to exploit the Palestinian tragedy. Washington’s perfidy in Gaza and Lebanon, with any sense on the Palestinian side, spells the end of the line for “its Palestinian,” and its absurd experiment in democracy under occupation.

Omar Yousef Shehabi is a 24-year old Palestinian-American lawyer. He has worked for the UN Development Programme in Ramallah as a law clerk for the Palestinian Authority Ministry of National Economy. He can be reached at oshehabi@gmail.com.