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What's Next After Abbas's Notification of Not Seeking Palestinian Presidency?

By Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah, November 21, 2009


The recent decision by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas not to seek a second term in office has already thrown into question the continued survival of the Oslo peace process as well as the future of the PA itself.

Most Palestinians have interpreted Abbas's decision as a frank -- though belated -- admission of the failure of the peace process with Israel.

In his speech on Thursday, 5 November, Abbas didn't mourn that process much. But he did suggest that it was pointless to walk any further along the current path given Israel's adamant refusal to stop (its illegal) settlement expansion and the Obama administration's refusal to force Israel to give up the spoils of the 1967 war.

Abbas did ask the Palestinian people to continue to believe in the eventuality of peace. However, he also gave the impression that true and just peace with Israel was a distant dream if not unrealistic.

It is still uncertain if Abbas will reconsider his decision under the influence of incessant calls to that effect by his supporters, especially within the Fatah organisation.

However, most Palestinian pundits seem to unanimously agree that the Palestinian leader won't do so unless he receives real "concessions" from Israel with regards to the settlements issue. Otherwise, Abbas would lose face and give Israel and the US an additional reason not to take him seriously the next time he triggers a crisis over the peace process.

Abbas's decision has raised many questions as to how the PA will survive his absence and the virtual death of the peace process. After all, that process, which provided a certain promise that the Palestinians would eventually rid themselves of Israel's military occupation, has always been the main raison d'Ítre of the PA. Hence, the PA would be effectively reduced to a mere subcontractor of the Israeli occupation if that promise vanished as most Palestinians seem to believe it has.

But the problem goes beyond the ostensible failure and imminent collapse of the peace process. Abbas is probably the most moderate Palestinian leader from the Israeli and Western viewpoint. It is inconceivable, at least at this juncture, that any other Fatah substitute who would replace Abbas would be willing to accommodate Israeli whims, especially on matters related to Jerusalem and the settlements.

Hence one Fatah leader in Ramallah questioned the "wisdom" of appointing a successor to Abbas under the current political conditions. "What would any potential successor to Abbas be able to do? Abbas has given the Americans and Israelis all they want. He went to the greatest extent possible in order to demonstrate Palestinian desire for peace. But look how they have treated him."

The source added, on condition of anonymity: "They [America and Israel] wanted Abbas to be a full-fledged collaborator working against the interests of his own people. They were not willing to accept a dignified Palestinian partner. They didn't want partners, they only wanted to see collaborators, such as the current rulers of Afghanistan and Iraq."

So far, the Obama administration has been reticent about these latest developments in the occupied West Bank. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Abbas specifically blamed for convincing President Obama not to pressure Israel on the settlements issue, said she would continue to work with the Palestinian leader in whatever new capacity he might choose. The allusion here is to the possibility that Abbas might retain his more important post as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which is uncertain to say the least.

Spokespersons at the State Department and White House called on Abbas to reconsider and to give the peace process another chance.

It is uncertain what steps the Obama administration would take if Abbas made good on his undertaking not to run in the Palestinian general elections, scheduled for 24 January. Indeed, the elections themselves have been thrown into question by Abbas's speech. After all, many Palestinians, including many Fatah leaders, question the rationality of holding elections when all political horizons have been completely closed and no successor to Abbas is known.

Some pundits suggest that the Obama administration might seek "another" Palestinian Karzai -- a strongman like Mohamed Dahlan. However, it is near certain that any meddling from Washington would cause Fatah to implode from within with such a new leader being viewed by the majority of Palestinians as an American agent. Another possibility is that the US would further boost the status of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, enabling him to function as de facto Palestinian leader in lieu of Abbas. But this prospect, too, is fraught with uncertainty because Fayyad is bereft of a popular base despite attempts to build one.

Earlier this week, Fayyad and his ministers threatened to collectively resign their posts if Abbas left the Palestinian political scene. It is not clear though if this was a stunt, or a real threat. The resignation of the Fayyad government, coupled with Abbas's resignation, would deal a serious blow to the PA and might bring about its complete collapse.

Such a collapse would force Israel to re-assume all the tasks and responsibilities of an occupying power. In this case, Israel would be faced with two undesirable scenarios: the likely resumption of violence and resistance by all Palestinian factions, including Fatah; or rising Palestinian demands for a one-state solution whereby Israel would have to grant Palestinians equal rights as citizens in a unitary and democratic state extending from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean.

This last option is anathema to Israel and many Jews since it would herald the end of classical Zionism and auger the ultimate prospect of Israel losing its Jewish majority.

There have been reports that the Obama administration might opt to overcome the present crisis by declaring its recognition of a prospective Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. Israel is already jittery about this prospect and has been seeking "clarifications" from Washington in this regard.

However, while such an acknowledgment on Washington's part would be a remarkable event for increasingly frustrated Palestinians, it would do little to change reality on the ground, as Israel has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to overrule and disregard American decisions, especially if these decisions are not coordinated with Israel beforehand.

Israel's recent defiance of the Obama administration on the settlements issue is clear evidence to that effect.




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