Why they love Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas. (SIMA)

Mahmoud Abbas was recently selected chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). As the sole candidate of Fatah, the faction that dominates the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA), he is almost certain to be elected on 9 January as president of the PA, replacing Yasir Arafat in both key positions.

This “smooth transition” will be a great relief to many Western peace processors. In their view, not only has the “biggest obstacle” to peace been removed with the departure of Arafat, but the man set to succeed him is someone long prepared to climb down on final status issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and the character of a Palestinian state. The notorious secret agreement Abbas reached with Israel’s former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin in October 1995, which has since become the benchmark for any other subsequent blueprints, including the “generous offer” at Camp David, the Clinton proposals and the Geneva Initiative, foresees 130 Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands remaining where they are and being “removed” from Palestinian land only by virtue of their annexation to Israel.

The Beilin-Abbas agreement also envisioned allowing Israeli military forces to stay in the Jordan Valley. Worse still was Abbas’ acceptance that the village of Abu Dis be deceptively renamed “Al Quds” — the Arabic name for Jerusalem — and made the capital of the Palestinian state, while the real occupied city of Jerusalem, be simply surrendered in toto to Israel.

Another great source of comfort for Abbas’ Western admirers is his declared opposition to all forms of Palestinian violence against Israel. Long before his brief tenure as prime minister, he travelled the length and breadth of the region, campaigning against “the arming of the Intifada,” and lamenting the great damage the Intifada has caused the Palestinians.

It is on the basis of such credentials that Arafat was put under severe Western pressure to appoint Abbas as his prime minister, after Arafat himself was excommunicated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and, under Sharon’s direct influence, the United States. The fact that Abbas lasted only four months in office and reaped only failure intensified the blame on Arafat for having obstructed his prime minister, rather than raising any questions as to Abbas’ true qualifications or the wisdom of the demands and expectations placed on the Palestinians to perform miracles while Israel waged a cruel and relentless war against them with full American backing.

Yet, here is Abbas again, at the very top of the realm, this time with no obstruction from Arafat and with the enthusiastic approval of all those who have been waiting to leap at the opportunity of reviving the failed peace process.

Abbas has wasted no time reiterating his firm position against violence. He told UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw he hoped the PA would soon be able to announce “an end to all military actions, full calm, a full end to violence.” He further declared: “What is needed is a comprehensive and complete calm throughout the occupied territories… cooling down in Gaza the West Bank and everywhere.” (The Independent, 26 November 2004)

A PLO official said, according to this report: “Abbas had been seeking a halt to all operations against Israeli civilians, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza — a formula that would not apply to attacks on Israeli armed forces in the occupied territories.” But, The Independent noted, Abbas has pointedly omitted saying that Israeli occupation forces would not be included in any ceasefire, both in remarks to reporters and to Straw. The Independent also observed that Abbas omitted any reference indicating that the “halt to violence was necessarily to be confined to the period of the forthcoming elections”. Abbas emphasised: “Peace, we want peace. This is really our goal, our aim. We want an agreed-upon peace.”

No one could disagree with that, but what Abbas actually seems to be offering is a complete, unconditional end to all armed resistance and self-defence against Israeli aggression in exchange for no commitment from the Israeli occupier or its American and European backers and enablers that Israel will halt its aggression against Palestinians and their land.

Admittedly, this is the most acceptable language any Palestinian leader can use to win friends in Washington and European capitals. At present, there is no allowance for the use of violence for any reason, no matter how legitimate. This is a privilege which has been reserved solely for the United States and its minions, and Israel; to those whose strength cannot be challenged. In the new world order, the weak have no right even to defend themselves, even when that right is recognised and protected by international law. But it is not only in this matter that international law has been torn to shreds.

Palestinian violence, in particular, or “terror” as Israel and its supporters call it, stands out in the eyes of those who claim to be most committed to a peace settlement as the major factor which has been responsible for the ongoing instability in the region and for the obstruction of peace. And since the Palestinians are very weak, and have been offered absolutely no protection by the international community, they are now to be stripped of their most basic right to fight for their freedom from occupation or defend themselves against an ongoing Israeli onslaught.

Israel’s mass terror, against an entire population, in pursuit of religiously inspired land theft, looting and pillage, is highly tolerated and excused as legitimate “self-defence”. The victims are the aggressors and “terrorists”.

Whether right or wrong, this is the reality and many counsel that Palestinians can only improve their chances for an easier life under occupation, and a possible resolution of their plight, if they abandon all resistance and return to the negotiating table, even if they sit there against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy that holds a gun to their head.

One only wishes this were true. Of course, no sane person would want violence for its own sake, against the Israelis or anyone else. Neither would any Palestinian want to prolong the suffering and the bloody violence if the option of a fair peace became a reality. But so far, that is not remotely the case.

The real issue is not the removal of the symptoms in order to achieve temporary relief. We must attack the source of the problem; the Israeli occupation and Israel’s racist ideology that places its “rights” above those of the indigenous people on whose land it was created by ethnic cleansing and war. Israel seeks, above all, to prevent people from reaching the conclusion that its policies are in fact the major obstacle to peace and stability in the region.

Israel’s goal is not to achieve calm for the purpose of negotiating a total, orderly withdrawal from the occupied territories in the context of a peace deal. Israel wants to end Palestinian resistance in order to remove any obstacle to implementing its expansionist programme in all of Palestine. This would certainly thrill Israel, but it will not lead to peace and security, nor will it gain the Palestinians anything.

And in the case of Abbas, perhaps he has little choice but to repeat old clichés about violence and peace. This will no doubt improve his image and enhance his acceptability as a player in the international peace process industry, but, again, it will not bring peace any closer.

Abbas will soon be served with endless lists of impossible demands. The peace processors will urge him to comply simply because they are too craven to confront Israel. Abbas will not be able to fulfil the demands either because he does not have the means or because they will be so counter to Palestinian rights that the people will stop him. And the region will be back to square one while the professional peace industry devises new ways to delay the inevitable day when they will be forced to confront Israel as they confronted and defeated the racist regime in apartheid South Africa.

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