Who Listens To Abbas?

By Fawaz A. Gerges

June 12, 2003

Poor Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister. No sooner had he had his historic meeting at Aqaba with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, and President George W. Bush, than the troubles began.

Last week, as a show of force and for the first time ever, the three main Palestinian armed groups, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, launched a joint attack against Israeli troops, killing four soldiers and challenging the very authority of Abbas and his promise to the Americans and Israelis about ending the armed Palestinian intifada.

Not to be outdone, Sharon ordered his forces to assassinate a senior Hamas political leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, injuring him and killing several Palestinians during the raid. Yesterday, Hamas retaliated by blowing up a bus in Jerusalem, killing and injuring scores of Israelis. And so, the cycle of violence continues, threatening to devour both the road map and Abbas himself.

Abbas is being squeezed by all sides to produce concrete results. Palestinians, not just the militants, are angry at him for not stressing at Aqaba the issue of Palestinian suffering and their legitimate aspirations. They expect him to free them from Israeli military occupation and improve their well-being (75 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line, and unemployment is as high as 60 percent, according to United Nations sources).

On the other hand, Americans and Israelis are using Abu Mazen, as Abbas is known, to sideline Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and are pressuring him to crack down against militant groups, regardless of whether such a confrontation results in a Palestinian civil war.

Abbas is called upon to deliver no less than a miracle - isolating and replacing an autocratic but charismatic leader; pacifying a deeply politicized, mobilized and militarized society; and negotiating a viable peace settlement with one of Israel's fiercest hawks, who leads the most hard-line government in Israel's history. Nothing short of a magic wand will achieve this tall order.

Barring a dramatic shift in U.S. diplomacy and Israel's negotiating position, the odds are stacked against Abbas. He faces formidable internal obstacles. He possesses neither the charisma to inspire the Palestinian shabab, the politicized youths, nor the power base to challenge Arafat and the militants. In fact, Abbas owes his new position to Arafat, his old patron.

The Bush administration and the Israeli government are quick to assume that Abbas can act independently and marginalize Arafat. This is far from the truth. More than ever, Abbas needs Arafat and the people around him so that he can be seen as legitimate, representing the interests of the shabab.

Abbas repeatedly has demanded that Sharon lift Israel's siege on Arafat and has rejected efforts to exclude him from the peace effort. He has made it clear that Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people.

Abbas suffers from a major handicap - being viewed by many Palestinians as being forced on them by the Americans and the Israelis. His speech in Aqaba angered many Palestinians, not just the armed groups, who believed that Abbas did not dwell on their dismal plight. The intensity of dissent and dissatisfaction within Palestinian society forced Abbas to hold a press conference in which he promised to remain steadfast when it comes to Palestinian nationalist aspirations - ending Israel's military occupation, freeing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and insisting on the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Abbas cannot afford to distance himself from Arafat, who, despite everything, remains popular and retains control of most of the Palestinian security forces. Abbas knows that if Arafat feels marginalized, he can easily withhold support from Abbas and can even dismiss him. Worse still, Arafat would sabotage any cease-fire and encourage armed resistance and terror in order to provoke the Israelis.

Abbas has also been reluctant to act decisively against Hamas and Islamic Jihad because he still lacks the standing and legitimacy in Palestine and does not have the physical means necessary to crack down on the militants.

Although some Palestinian security forces are being reconstituted, with assistance from the CIA, they have been weakened considerably by Israeli attacks. A showdown with Hamas would likely lead to a civil war. It is little wonder that Abbas is engaged in intensive talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad to reach an agreement to "stop terrorism" against Israelis. But he was blunt when asked if he would use force against Hamas: "A civil war - never."

This does not mean that Abbas will refrain from using force against the militants if and when Sharon orders his troops to withdraw from Palestinian towns and cities and if Hamas continues its attacks against Israelis. But he says he prefers using persuasion, not coercion, to stop the attacks and has been working diligently to negotiate cease-fires with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other secular groups.

Abbas is a figurehead with a great deal of potential. The only way he can gain legitimacy at home and convince the shabab of the futility of violence is if he succeeds in making a marked difference in their lives and giving them a stake in the future.

His ability to act decisively depends to a large extent on whether the U.S. and Israel appreciate his predicament and move swiftly to help him in improving the Palestinians' quality of life. But they can fully empower Abbas if they make a genuine commitment to reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians based on justice and historical reconciliation.

Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Mideast and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is author of the forthcoming book "The Islamists and the West: Ideology vs. Pragmatism?"

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