Abbas Goes Double Duty

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

On Sunday, November 23, the PLO Central Council elected Mahmoud Abbas the President of Palestine. The last president the Palestinians had was Yasser Arafat, or Abu Ammar, who died four years ago. Now, Abbas, who is already president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and head of Fateh, is wearing the new cap of head of state.

The fact of the matter is that since the election, the average Palestinian is scrambling to make sense of who is in what position, how or why this position even exists, and what this actually means in practical terms. This is especially true given our current state of affairs. The West Bank and Gaza are both geographically and politically isolated from one another, with Hamas and Fateh alternately scratching out eyes and stabbing backs in their respective bids for power.

Putting together the puzzle of Palestinian politics and its quagmire of systems is not always easy. Before the advent of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was the sole legitimate representative authority for the Palestinians. Traditionally established with the goal of liberating all of Palestine by means of, but not exclusively through, armed struggle and resistance, the 1987 Intifada changed the political paradigms for the leadership. The result of this shift was the PLO acceptance of a deal with the international community to relinquish armed struggle and enter into negotiations with Israel on the basis of UN Resolution 242, which called for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

While Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO’s Executive Committee and head of Fateh, agreed to this, he also wanted guarantees – i.e., along with entering into the world of negotiations, the Palestinians would declare their state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Al Quds Al Shareef (east Jerusalem). Naturally, Arafat was then elected the president of this "State", which the leadership believed would eventually come into being as a result of the negotiations they had agreed to enter.

Needless to say, the position of President of Palestine was and remains symbolic, created at the time to garner international support for the Palestinian quest for statehood by means of peaceful negotiations. Much of the international community appreciated the significance as well, with 120 countries recognizing this virtual state of Palestine when it was declared on November 15, 1988.

After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the Palestinian Authority was created as an interim authority and was assumedly meant to guide its people on the road to this statehood. Arafat, ever the astute politician, ensured that he would also be elected as head of the PA, thus avoiding any contradiction between the two positions of symbolic leader of Palestine and the pragmatic leader of the PA.

It obviously worked, straight up to his death in November 2004. However, since then, the elusive position of President of Palestine has remained vacant and probably would still be so if it were not for the current state of affairs in the Palestinian Territories. While Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected to the PA presidency in 2005, he has since then found himself at the center of a battle of wills and guns with Hamas, a party now casting doubt over the legitimacy of his term, which they say effectively ends in January 2009.

Hence, one can only wonder why this recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the President of Palestine took place at this particular moment in time. It can only be explained as being part of an overall move to further strengthen Abbas’ claim to legitimacy in the eyes of his people. It goes without saying that Abbas is under extreme pressure, both from within his own society and political party, to step up to the plate and end the damaging rift between Hamas and Fateh. Palestinian society is also pressuring Hamas to meet Abbas halfway. The international community, on the other hand, wants to see Hamas pushed out of power and Abbas and his government in its stead.

Mahmoud Abbas is now President of Palestine, but does that really mean anything on the ground? If there were an actual state to be governed, then yes – this might mean something. Back in 1988, the decision to declare a state with a president had far-reaching political and diplomatic significance, which at least, in part, was fulfilled. Today, however, the election will most likely have little effect on swaying the Palestinians either way with regards to Abbas’ legitimacy. Nor does it have legal influence on any future elections within the Palestinian Authority.

If anything, declaring Abbas the president of Palestine is just another step in the dance between the Palestinians and the international community. It is a reminder to them – and to the United States in particular – that the Palestinians still have their eyes set on the original goal declared in 1988, which is establishing an independent Palestine on Palestinian land occupied in 1967. If the Palestinians achieved one thing from the declaration of their state, it was an international recognition of the right for that state to exist. What most of the world did not even consider at one point in time has now become the premise on which all negotiations are based, that of a Palestinian state.

At present, the President of our Authority and of Palestine has a lot on his plate. Unlike his predecessor, Abu Ammar, Abbas has found it difficult to maintain a hold over his people under the umbrella of national unity. The fierce in-fighting and political splits that have plagued the Palestinians for the past few years have weakened Abbas and his ability to rule over all Palestinians.

In his inaugural speech, Abbas said he would call for simultaneous legislative and presidential elections at the beginning of next year, should unity talks with Hamas fail. Hamas has rejected the offer, maintaining that Abbas cannot call for such elections without the consent of the PLC, in whose hands the majority of seats exist. Whether this most recent appointment will actually further the intended goal of strengthening Abbas remains to be seen. However, Abbas has guaranteed one thing. If he loses the PA presidential elections to Hamas or to anyone else, he will at least go down in the annals of history as Palestine’s second head of state.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www,miftah.org – November 26, 2008)

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