Why Israel is so excited about “prime minister” Abu Mazen

Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”)

The Israeli army “removed from its Internet site quotes made by Palestinian Authority prime ministerial candidate Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) justifying armed resistance against settlements and settlers, which were taken from the Arab-language newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat,” Ha’aretz reported on 12 March.

The move apparently came after settlers demanded that in the light of Abbas’ statements, prime minister Ariel Sharon and president Moshe Katsav should retract the cautious praise they had given his appointment. The newspaper reported that, “In the past few days, U.S. diplomats have asked Israel to ease the pressure on Abu Mazen and enable him to maneuver freely,” and speculated that, “it is possible that the removal of the quotes from the IDF site is in response to the American request.”

This remarkable episode underscores the reasons why the appointment of Abbas to the new position of prime minister by Yasser Arafat has been a subject of much excitement in the Israeli press, even as Palestinians have met it with complete indifference.

Popular objections to Arafat’s move stem from two sources. First, Palestinians rightly ask of which political entity Abbas will be prime minister. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live under direct, Israeli military rule, and therefore are not citizens of the state that rules them, or any other state. Indeed, they are the largest group of non-citizens on the planet, completely disenfranchised in a world of nation-states. Introducing someone described as a “prime minister” under these circumstances is simply ridiculous.

It will not change in any way the power equation between the Palestinian people and their de facto rulers. No matter what nominal powers are conferred on a Palestinian “prime minister,” he will have no ability to counteract any of the crushing measures Israel is taking against the civilian population. Respected Palestinian physician Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi was certainly reflecting widespread sentiment when he told The New York Times that, “My feeling is that people are not at all excited,” about the appointment of a prime minister, since “it’s seen as compliance with outside pressure, not part of our real needs.” (10 March 2003)

The idea of a prime minister originated from Israel, and was quickly adopted by the United States. As with other Israeli- and American-inspired Palestinian “reforms,” this latest move yet again puts the cart before the horse by focusing on the trappings of statehood (i.e the post of prime minister), rather than the development of an independent state. The most important purpose of these manoeuvers is to change the subject and to promote a theory of the ongoing conflict, which elides its fundamental cause — the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land — and instead focuses attention entirely on internal Palestinian politics. These tactics reflect an understanding on the part of the Israeli government that such spurious interpretations of the cause of the ongoing conflict are essential to prevent domestic and international public opinion from seeing the obvious, which that the occupation is the cause of the conflict and its end is the only solution.

The second source of objections stems from the individual picked for the position. While the demand for Palestinian “reform” is supposedly inspired by international concern that there be better governance, Abbas is widely perceived among Palestinians themselves as one of the most notoriously corrupt individuals in the Palestinian Authority. Soon after the Authority was established in Gaza, construction began on a lavish $1.5 million villa for Abbas, funded by unknown sources, and in the midst of some of the world’s most wretched poverty. In response to widespread outrage, Arafat’s “Minister of Commerce and Economy,” Nasser Sarraj, argued in The New York Times, “Who says he [Abbas] doesn’t have the right to live in a villa worth $1.5 million, or even $10 million?” He added, “Those who say he doesn’t are spies and collaborators for Israel.” (2 February 1997)

Abbas is also deeply mistrusted among Palestinians for his authorship along with senior Israelis of various “peace plans” that relinquish fundamental Palestinian rights and maintain the occupation intact albeit under another name. It was Abbas’ idea to take the dusty village of Abu Dis, rename it “Al Quds” and then to hand the entire city of Jerusalem over to Israel. Abbas is frequently celebrated by such figures as Ha’aretz commentator Akiva Eldar for his apparent willingness to repudiate Palestinian refugees’ right of return. What Abbas advocates now is nothing more than a return to the utterly failed Oslo process, which led directly and quite predictably to the current bloody impasse.

It is no surprise that Assistant US Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters on 28 February that Abbas is America’s choice, because, according to UPI, the United States would want to see a leader who could “speak authoritatively for the Palestinian people.” A good prime minister, Armitage added, “would be a great help to the Palestinian people and also allow them to talk to Israel.” Obviously the Palestinians need better leadership than they have been getting, but Abbas has been a central figure in that failed leadership and does not speak for the Palestinian people.

Israel, with the collusion of the United States, and not to the great disappointment of Arafat, canceled elections scheduled for last January which might have provided the Palestinians some opportunity to speak for themselves and pick new leaders. Instead, the discredited and ridiculous Arafat, holed up for nearly two years in a pile of rubble, has appointed another discredited Palestinian leader to join him. It should be noted that Abbas was not Arafat’s first choice, because as soon as the United States declared last summer that Arafat was finished, Abbas began positioning himself to take over. Instead, Arafat had wanted to appoint a political non-entity who would not have posed any challenge to him or served the Palestinian people any better.

Abbas is hardly a non-entity, but his track record and the circumstances of his appointment go along way in explaining why the Israeli and American governments are far more keen on his appointment than is any Palestinian.

This article first appeared in The Daily Star on 15 March 2003.