Pressman: Implications of Abu Mazen
Jeremy Pressman of the University of Connecticut Political Science Department shares his thoughts in a guest editorial on the victory of Mahmud Abbas in the Palestinian elections last Sunday
Implications for the Middle East of Mahmud Abbas’s Victory
With Mahmud Abbas’s clear victory in Sunday’s Palestinian presidential elections, attention has started to shift to the implications of Abbas’s election for Palestinian society and for Israeli-Palestinian relations. If Abbas plays his cards right, a tremendous opportunity is at hand.
The presidential election campaign, coming just weeks after partial municipal Palestinian elections, is a healthy development for Palestinian society. Long caught between Yasser Arafat’s autocratic governance and Israel’s military occupation, Palestinian political development has been stifled and free elections have been all too infrequent; the first, and only, presidential elections were held in 1996. Not only did Abbas campaign vigorously but his nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, admirably fought for votes in the face of Abbas’s organizational advantages. This bodes well for future elections.
Abbas faced a political dilemma coming into the elections. On the one hand, he has been outspoken for several years about the failure of the militarization of the second Palestinian intifada. Abbas, a member of Arafat’s older generation, has implicitly criticized the younger generation of militants who engage in daily confrontations with Israeli forces and attacks on Israeli civilians.
On the other hand, Abbas did not have a traditional base of political power. For years, he was a close advisor of Arafat without backing from either a powerful clan or a militant or security organization; he had no genuine popular following. Like many other Palestinian politicians, his institutional titles were always of less meaning than might have appeared given Arafat’s tight control of Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Palestinian National Authority. His brief tenure as Palestinian prime minister in mid-2003 ended in failure and resignation in the face of both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s intransigence.
During the campaign, however, Abbas has appeared to forge close ties with Palestinian militants, the very people who it would seem would be most opposed to the de-militarization of the intifada. Marwan Barghouti, the most popular Fatah leader of the younger generation, opted out, in, and then out of the presidential race. His last exit may have turned on a deal with Abbas. Several regional leaders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a nationalist militia loosely affiliated with Fatah, have also campaigned with Abbas. Abbas has even been in talks with Hamas, the Islamist opposition that chose not to field a presidential candidate.
The key question about Abbas, then, is whether he will use or be used by Palestinian militants. Can Abbas bring them along, promising to hold fast to core Palestinian political objectives on land, Jerusalem, and refugees even as he dramatically shifts the tactics of the second intifada? His clear victory in a free and fair election should provide an initial boost to Abbas’s legitimacy among Palestinians.
Like so much in Palestinian politics, though, much of what Abbas needs to win this post-election argument is out of his hands. He can initiate a public debate in Palestinian politics, but if Israel’s Sharon is not interested in engagement, Abbas is much more likely to be stymied. In a December 30-31, 2004 poll, Palestinians were exactly split on whether they support Abbas’s call for the cessation of the use of arms. An easing of the Israeli occupation and a return to high-level negotiations over a two-state solution – steps that can only take place with Israeli acquiescence – would convince more Palestinians to accept the end of military attacks on Israelis.
Sharon’s recent track record does not offer much hope. In 2002, when the Arab League, at Saudi Arabia’s initiative, approved a pathbreaking call for acceptance of and normalization with Israel, Israel largely ignored the measure. When Abbas was prime minister in 2003, Sharon hardly lifted a finger to help Abbas reform Palestinian society and slowly reduce Arafat’s grip on power. Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005 is helpful, but his close advisor Dov Weisglas declared the Gaza withdrawal was meant to prevent any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, not test the waters for further shifts. Absent an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the two-state solution will not get off the ground.
For decades, the United States has pushed for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the election of Abbas, the United States will face a new leader who, if willing to take on Palestinian militant tactics, could make a compelling call for a two-state solution. President George Bush’s initial response has been positive, but he needs to turn rhetoric into concrete US action. By encouraging both Abbas to move in this direction and Sharon to respond in positive ways, Washington could go along way toward jump-starting a much-needed push for peace.
Jeremy Pressman, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, is co-author of Point of No Return: the Deadly Struggle for Middle East Peace and author of “Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?”