The quick rise and fall of Mahmoud Abbas

(Bush/Sharon: White House photo by Paul Morse. Abbas by Jamal Aroury)


The resignation of the first Palestinian prime minister should surprise no one. The whole scheme was no more than an artificial arrangement intended to serve far more hidden, dangerous purposes than those sanctimoniously declared. It was artificial because Mahmoud Abbas was neither the choice of the Palestinian people nor that of the Palestinian Authority president. Instead, Abbas was imposed by the Americans and the Israelis to implement a plan, the elements of which were harmful to the cause of peace, harmful to Palestinian interests, and contradictory to any of the patrons’ claims of introducing democracy and reform to the Palestinian institutions.

Under intense American and Arab pressure, even threats, the Palestinian leadership succumbed and offered a tepid welcome. But with the exception of the tiny and opportunistic minority who stood to make petty personal gains, most Palestinians were neither happy nor convinced. They were more cautious and fearful of the outcome of another alarming attempt to circumvent their rights.

Abbas’ duties were specially packaged for him, mainly by the Israelis and the Americans, as his choice for the job was specifically made, by the same, because he was expected to be the most suitable for such an assignment. The missed reality in all this was that the assigned duties were as bizarre as they were impossible to achieve; and the man chosen to discharge them had neither the strength nor the necessary means, or even the opportunity, to advance a step on that heavily mined path. The inevitable outcome was, therefore, the quick collapse of an intrinsically flawed plan.

Three built-in factors were fundamentally responsible for the fast demise of the Abbas Cabinet.

One was the “sponsors” of the Abbas project, whose intention was to have him gradually marginalise and eventually replace Arafat. Arafat was declared “irrelevant” by Israel and the U.S. in summber 2002, even though he is the legitimately elected Palestinian leader. President George Bush, in a major foreign policy statement on the Middle East in June last year stated that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror”.

Arafat, who was accused by the Israelis and the Americans of supporting terrorism or doing enough to stop it, was totally embargoed and all contacts with him severed by the Americans and Israelis since then. When the Palestinian elections, which were meant to take place at the beginning of last year to elect the new prime minister required by America’s leaders, could not be held on time due to the circumstances of the occupation and had to be indefinitely postponed, Washington had to impose its own choice of leader, and that was Abbas.

It may not be fair to take for granted the notion that Abbas himself entertained the ambition of replacing Arafat, and that he accepted the tricky assignment on that basis. As a matter of fact, and to avoid any possibility of others seeing his appointment that way, he took every possible precaution and spared no gesture to emphasise his correct and respectful dealing with Arafat. It is hard to believe that Abbas whose limited influence, political power or national standing depended entirely on Arafat’s support, would knowingly take any step that would be misconstrued as defiance of the Arafat’s authority. Yet, it was Abbas’ acceptance to occupy this position, at a very sensitive and critical time, that created a state of confrontation, contradiction and hostility between the two top leaders.

Increasing complications on the ground intensified, rather than reduced the tensions which broke into the open just before Abbas’ resignation. Seeing Abbas not only as his rival but, worse, as his replacement made it clear that Arafat would not make his prime minister’s job any easier, and indeed it was not.

The second destructive factor was the sponsor’s assumption that Abbas would rush to meet one of their primary demands, commencing his mission with a decisive confrontation with the resistance groups, disarming them, dismantling their infrastructure and ending their existence before any meaningful promise of change in the grave situation of the Palestinians would be made. And that was only one initial phase of a larger security plan to end the Intifada in all its forms, physically and verbally, as any verbal calls for emphasising Palestinian rights or for ending the occupation are considered “incitement.”

Abbas, who clearly committed himself to ending the Intifada, did not do any of that. His very inaction made things worse for him; it put him in trouble with the Israelis and the Americans, who accused him of being unable to deliver, and, due to his previous commitments and campaigning against the Intifada, coupled with the hesitant measures his government had taken to appease the Israelis, he was further distanced from his people and his meagre credibility collapsed.

This was an undertaking which Abbas could never have fulfilled because it was not part of an integral, authentic peace plan based on ending the occupation. Throughout Abbas’ brief tenure the Israeli occupation forces pressed relentlessly their campaign of oppression and assassination against the Palestinians and made no reciprocal gesture towards the Palestinian ceasefire that virtually ended violence against Israel.

It was madness to expect any Palestinian leadership to do the dirty work on behalf of the Israelis against its own occupied people who are constantly under attack by a powerful force intent on confiscating and colonizing the very land they exist on.

The third factor was the suspicious environment that the unprecedented Israeli and American support for Abbas created. It was hard to believe that such support was not based on the expectation, and probably the promise, that Abbas would concede to the Israelis more than any previous Palestinian leader had ever done.

With the Palestinians already appalled by the erosion of their rights as a result of their leaders’ continuous concessions to the Israelis and their leaders’ vulnerability to external pressure, they could not tolerate further descent along this dangerous path.

The fear that Abbas would accept a humiliating settlement dictated by the Israelis, scrapping Jerusalem (which he had already agreed to exchange for the small neighbouring village of Abu Dis), abandoning the rights of the refugees, accepting the settlements and perhaps accepting a chopped-up, mini-state under Israeli control, was a real fear which Palestinians did not want to deal with anymore.

In such a stormy and rough environment, the Abbas ship was bound to sink, and it did. Many, including myself, saw this happening right from the beginning, as from the beginning everything was clear and the chances of success for such a foolhardy scheme were zero. It is strange that anyone could have seen it differently, including Abbas himself.

The chances of Ahmed Qureia are not going to be any better. He will be served with the same impossible-to-fulfill demands (without the guarantees of success he is asking for) of turning against his people to solve the Israeli security problems. His expected failure to act will turn the Americans and the Israelis against him, while his well-known preparedness to make concessions at the expense of the inalienable Palestinian rights to save his new position will distance him from his people. It is the same failed formula.

Qureia is the chief architect of the disastrous Oslo deal, the source of all the troubles that followed since. In that respect, he is not very different from his predecessor. He will probably make one full turn in the cycle before he will find himself on the same cliff from which Abbas recently jumped.

Many voices in the West have been claiming that the fall of Abbas marks the end of the roadmap. While it is hard to imagine how a totally powerless leader of an occupied, powerless “authority” could determine the destiny of the roadmap, and of the region, this, in an adverse sense, may still be true. The roadmap, which the Israeli amendments rendered completely useless, could have been saved by Abbas by reducing legitimate Palestinian rights to match the little the gutted roadmap had to offer. This certainly is no recipe for peace. It is, on the contrary, the very prescription for more injustice, more instablity and bloody, endless violence.

The writer is former ambassador of Jordan to the United Nations and a regular contributor to EI.