Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News
November 11, 2009 - 1:00am

It is probably ironic that the only direct, and most likely genuine, plea with Mahmoud Abbas to stay on and rescind his decision not to contest next year’s elections, came not from his close Arab and Western allies, but from Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Abbas’ announcement last week that he would not seek a second term as president of the PNA drew mixed reactions from friends and foes, loyalists and dissenters. But on the whole few lamented his presumptive departure from the scene, while many of his critics, Palestinians and others, claimed his recent notice was nothing more than a ploy.

There were harsh words against the man who took over five years ago after the death of Yasser Arafat. Commenting in Foreign Policy magazine under the provocative title, “Good Riddance Abbas,” Saree Makdisi, a California based Palestinian academic, wrote: The announcement that Abbas has decided not to stand for re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority should come as a relief to all Palestinians. In fact, Abbas’ departure will open a much-needed opportunity to take stock of where things stand and assess the future course of the Palestinian struggle.

But not all agree that the so-called “Abbasid” phase of Palestinian fight for recognition and liberation is about to end. The glee that many Palestinians have expressed, Hamas included, over the man’s political demise may prove premature. One columnist in a Jordanian daily predicted that Abbas’ departure will pave the way for the return of Abu Mazen! This will not be the first time that Abbas had employed a gambit. He had threatened to exit the stage a number of times in the past only to be “persuaded” that his presence is essential to the endurance of the Palestinian cause. Even if he does not run in the next presidential elections, the elected president will be answerable to him as chairman of the PLO and head of its executive committee. He also keeps his job as president of Fatah, the largest Palestinian faction, and is expected to maintain the symbolic title of president of the State of Palestine! This is probably why US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted to Abbas’ recent intent by saying that the US will work with him in any capacity. In the midst of last summer’s bogged down reconciliation talks, Abbas was able to consolidate his grip over major national institutions including the PLO, Fatah and the Palestine National Council by planting loyalists in key positions.

But in his recent announcement, Abbas did not conceal his frustration with Israeli policies and the failure to relaunch peace talks.

He also warned that he may be forced to take further measures, which some analysts believed could include a surprise decision to dissolve the PNA.

Abbas has every right to feel aggravated, if not by Israeli manipulations over many years, then by what most Palestinians believe is US betrayal, especially by the Obama administration.

Clinton’s tour of the region, which included a meeting with Abbas in Abu Dhabi and a visit to Israel, Morocco and Egypt, culminated in a huge setback for the Palestinians, particularly over the settlements issue.

Even Egypt, which enjoys a special relationship with Abbas’ PNA, was seen as caving to US pressure by agreeing with Washington’s position, and that of the Netanyahu government, that peace talks must resume without preconditions.

On the whole Abbas’ record during his presidency, which had expired earlier this year, is pathetic. Succeeding Arafat, he was supposed to be America’s trusted man, and a negotiator the Israelis were used to working with. He had renounced Palestinian acts of violence/resistance and repeatedly denounced Hamas’ tactics.

But under his watch the Palestinians became more divided and discouraged. He had failed to win any meaningful concessions from the Israelis—not even the release of thousands of Palestinian detainees—and eventually, when he fired the elected Hamas government, he lost control of Gaza. The PNA’s role during the Israeli attack on Gaza earlier this year remains suspicious. Its position on the Goldstone report in Geneva was scandalous. Abbas’ ability to rid the PNA of corruption and maintain Fatah’s unity proved feeble.

With no light at the end of tunnel, Abbas found himself cornered. His announcement that he was holding new presidential and legislative elections next year in the absence of an accord with Hamas in Gaza drew criticism from all sides. His staunchest critics accused him of servitude to Israel and America.

So is Abbas really leaving or does he have a plan? He had never possessed sanguine qualities as a leader that could worry his foes or endear him to his people. Now he is setting up the stage for a new deal, one that he could easily lose control of.

If, on the other hand, he decides to dissolve the PNA and departs, he could drop a live bombshell in Israel’s lap. But can he be stopped from doing so? The Obama administration has a lot of atonement to do, and it may have started the repair process already through a back channel.

Reports that Obama may have given Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad the green light to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state have sent shock waves across Israel. The Fayyad initiative follows a different route to the objective of Palestinian statehood from the one Abbas has been treading for many years. It is not clear if the two men are coordinating their moves.

If Abbas and the Oslo process are living their final days, what would the alternative be? One can only speculate, but what is clear today is that Abbas has tossed a stone into a still pond. We have to wait for the ripple effect to begin before we can pronounce judgment.


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