November 5, 2009

Back to Violence?

The shock is only good for a second or two before the mind acclimates to reality. Dropping out of an election he just called for, Mahmoud Abbas’s decision is right on cue given the recent disruptions to a two-state solution.

“I have told our brethren in the PLO that I have no desire to run in the forthcoming election," Abbas said in a speech broadcast live from his headquarters in Ramallah.

Before anyone compares him to Dr. Abdullah, Abbas declared, "This decision does not at all amount to bargaining or political maneuvering... It is worth noting that I shall take other steps when the time comes."

It’s also worth noting why he’s jettisoning his post.

“We're at cross roads,” he said. “We have made lots of sacrifices in order to be able to have a right to a state. Since the Oslo agreements in 1993, all these agreements are based on land and on peace and an end to Israel occupation of 1967. We've pledged with Israel to reach a two-state solution but month after month we've seen nothing but complacency and procrastination."

Naturally Israel has most to do with Abbas’s decision and Hamas must have worn him out too. But make no mistake, President Obama and his team are part of the problem. Abbas had warned him about going soft.

“We were optimistic when President Obama announced the need for a complete halt to settlements including natural growth,” Abbas said. “We were surprised by his [later] support for the Israeli position... We were surprised by the United States’ closing its eyes to the Israeli position.”

To quote a Haaretz report, “’The problem is Israel and its positions,’ Abbas said, but associates said he really meant Obama, not Israel. They said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's praise for Israel's stand in favor of curtailing but not halting settlement construction stunned Abbas.”

“There was high expectation when he arrived on the scene,” Nabil Shaath, Abbas’s aide and chief of Fatah’s foreign affairs department, said of Obama. “He said he would work to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it would play a major role in improving the American and Western relationship with the Muslim world. Now there is a total retreat, which has destroyed trust instead of building trust.”

"Nineteen years after trying to achieve a two-state solution, maybe the president has come to his moment of truth...He feels betrayed by Arabs, Israelis, some Palestinians and to a certain extent by the Americans," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

These revelations barely fit the definition. Intra-relations between America, Israel, and Palestine are clearly fraying, though the unison and bluntness on Obama is a first. Abbas’s subtraction is a simple equation. His credibility in shambles after the Goldstone affair, Israel and America tried to force him into negotiations through public and private pressure.

But Abbas wasn’t kidding when he warned something had to give. America, told for ten months that failure to freeze settlement expansion would dead-end the peace process, persisted and met with rejection. Told to come back with a real offer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned with smoke and mirrors. Several days later Abbas is out.

“We have tremendous respect for President Abbas and the leadership he has offered the Palestinian people for decades,” Mrs. Clinton said Thursday, but the reality is America never gave him a chance.

The latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to unfold. Though beliefs and emotions lay on the table, the power vacuum in Palestine is growing beyond prediction. Some Fatah officials believe Abbas is bluffing, pointing out that elections might not even happen. The PLO has denied Abbas’s request, though he reportedly told the PLO executive committee, “It's time for you to find another donkey."

Then he has to worry about Hamas. Political chief Khaled Meshaal called the move to hold elections “illegal and unlawful” before a reconciliation deal is reached. “Reconciliation first and then we go to elections,” he insisted.

Hamas is deep in its game and thus difficult to analyze. Looking strong as it steamed towards reconciliation and becoming a legitimate player in negotiations, delaying its signature after the Goldstone affair sent its stock falling again. But Abbas appears to have put Hamas back in the driver’s seat.

More than a few Fatah officials expressed doubt in holding January elections, insisting that reconciliation must come first. Hamas vows to block voting, meaning Fatah, in firm control of the West Bank, cannot expand its power in Gaza. Also, Fatah is worried that without Abbas, its most popular politician not named Marwan Barghouti, Hamas prime minister Ishmail Haniyeh will run a close race.

Hamas officials are privately hoping to win big with Abbas out of the way, even if this requires signing the reconciliation agreement. The prospect of a rising Hamas makes America’s decisions all the more confusing. Abbas was all the West had, but it abused him nevertheless. Now the Palestinian’s most moderate leader has just been compromised.

With Hamas poised to close the gap, who else is America going to turn to? Prime Minister Salam Fayyad appears the best bet, maybe only bet, but championing unilateral statehood rules him out in Israel. This lack of foresight, of a Plan B, is summarized in one line by Nabil Shaath.

“It really is like telling the Palestinians to go back to violence.”

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