By: Sami Moubayed
“I cannot accept to remain the president of an authority that doesn’t exist” — these were the words of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestininian National Authority (PNA), in a recent TV interview.
He added, “Practically, there is no authority because I have to ask Israel’s permission for leaving or coming to Ramallah!”
Many Palestinians had to turn up the volume to double check if their ears had not betrayed them: Here was Abu Mazen, a product of the Oslo Accords, effectively threatening to dissolve what Oslo had proudly produced: the PNA.
Even worse, he was encouraging the Israelis to outrightly re-occupy what remains of the West Bank, “I will tell the Americans and the Israelis, come and put an end to all this. I cannot continue like this. We have an occupation and [yet] we don’t. No, keep it all and release me [from my responsibility].”
Apart from naive observers in the West, who often take what is said in the Arab world at face value, few Palestinians took Abu Mazen seriously. He was bluffing — to put it mildly — and trying to pressure the Israelis and Americans into returning to the peace talks, hoping that by some twist of fate, he can, like Yasser Arafat, sign off his political career with a peace treaty.
Or an even better scenario would be for both Israel and the US to stop breathing down his neck for negotiations, thereby accepting a reality: Abbas is no Arafat — he simply cannot deliver.
Twenty-four hours later, Abbas, a man who built his entire career on a ‘moderate’ stance towards occupation, telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express condolences over the deaths caused by widespread fires in the port city of Haifa.
He backed it up by sending Palestinian civil defence personnel to the aid of Israelis. Did Abbas really care how many people were killed in the Haifa fires? Probably not, but he was doing his best to look good before the international community, especially the Obama administration, imitating Arafat who, after 9/11, famously donated blood to American victims.
Netanyahu’s office described the talks (the first between both men since September) as “warm and friendly” and noted that “neighbours should always help each other”.
There are many factors that explain Abbas’ actions. One is the widespread corruption in the PNA. Another is the snowballing crisis between him and security strongman Mohammad Dahlan who, according to the Israeli press, is eyeing Abbas’ presidential seat. A third is the continued standoff with Hamas, which is affecting his image both at home and abroad.
Israel’s decision to go ahead with colonies in the West Bank, despite constant Palestinian calls for a freeze, has been a nightmare for Abbas, and so is a recent Wikileaks cable on Israeli security chief Amos Gilad, who believes that Abu Mazen will not survive beyond 2011.
The Americans, Abu Mazen believes, are more interested in a peace process today than an actual peace treaty. Instead of threatening to do away with the PNA, it would have been wiser for Abbas to examine ways in which he can empower it and polish its image.
The PNA was formed, after all, as a result of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement more than 15 years ago, supposedly for an interim period of five years, until a final settlement is reached between Palestinians and Israelis.
The PNA, thereby, is a body that has outlived its legal and projected lifespan, and is plagued by divisions ever since its authority was slashed down to the West Bank only, after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Hamas refuses to recognise Abbas as president, given that his term officially expired in January 2009. Many veterans of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, like the Tunis-based Farouq Al Qaddumi, see the PNA as nothing but a miserable pretext for power-hungry officials to stay in power, regardless of whether Palestinian aspirations are met or not.
Most of the PNA’s achievements, like the Gaza International Airport in the city of Rafah, have been drowned by the Israelis, who razed it after outbreak of the intifada in 2000.
The PNA police force, a once proud creation after Oslo that now numbers anywhere between 40,000-80,000 men, has transformed itself into a nuisance for Palestinians, and is seen as little more than a proxy for the Israelis.
Over 50 per cent of the residents of Gaza, who in theory are subjects of the PNA, make less than a dollar a day. World leaders do not take the PNA seriously. In theory, the PNA is the youngest of Arab regimes, yet it seems as the most aged and ailing, due to poor leadership since Arafat’s death in 2004.
With all its faults, Abbas will hold on to it with both hands, because it made him the man he is today and because his signature graced the Oslo Accords, which brought about the PNA in the first place.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Gulf News on December 6, 2010 entitled, “Abbas must attempt to empower the PNA.”