By Ramzy Baroud
Time is running out for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although both men are still committed to their risky venture of marginalising Hamas at any cost, the latter’s obduracy and recent events in Gaza point to the inescapable conclusion — the undertaking was doomed from the start.
For Olmert the issue demographics remains. He told Israeli daily Ha’aretz in an interview published in November 2007 that if it didn’t agree to an independent Palestinian state, Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished”. The Apartheid analogy is of course not a new one. Leading South Africans themselves were the first to make the comparison, and Israel’s history of aiding and abetting the infamous Apartheid South African governments is no secret either.
But Olmert’s belated rude-awakening aside, it is Mahmoud Abbas who is running out of options. Unlike Olmert, Abbas has no real, measurable powers. For one, his popularity amongst his own people has never been high. Past quarrels with late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat during the early years of the Palestinian Uprising singled Abbas out at an untrustworthy opportunist. Late professor Edward Said once called him ‘moderately corrupt.’ The formidable intellectual died before seeing the moderate corruption of Abbas morphing into a wholesale onslaught on democracy, freedom and every noble principle the Palestinians ever fought for. I wonder what Said would have said after seeing the people of Gaza suffering beyond comprehension while Abbas and Olmert meet in the latter’s Jerusalem residence, exchanging words of praise and vowing their undying commitment to ‘peace’.
A photo released by the Israeli government Press office on February 19 showed both leaders leaving another futile meeting in Jerusalem, with Olmert — aware of the cameras flashing all around them — holding an umbrella for the widely grinning Abbas. The post card-like scenario is of course part of the continuing charade of peace talks, deadlines and deadline extensions, interrupted by temporary quarrels, which are sorted out by US envoys before resuming more talks.
But how long can Abbas and Olmert carry on with this charade?
For Olmert, the objective and endgame are clear: stall until a ‘solution’ can be finalised and imposed on the Palestinians. This in turns depends on the finalisation of the construction of the illegal settlements, the wall and the network of Jewish-only bypass roads in Occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. However, Olmert’s poor standing among the Israeli public and the aforementioned ‘demographic threat’ will not make it possible for him to stall indefinitely. Still, with the US’ record of unconditionally backing Israeli policies, Olmert will remain in a relatively safe spot, regardless of which major presidential candidate goes on to claim the White House.
One can hardly say the same about Abbas. His usefulness for Israel, and thus the US administration, is entirely dependent on his level of ‘cooperation’, which essentially means ensuring Palestinian disunity, fighting Hamas, and remaining a pawn in the US’ imaginative view of the entire region (whereby ‘moderates’ stand united against ‘extremists’ and ‘rejectionists’).
Yet, unlike other Arab ‘moderates’, Abbas lacks all leverage. He ‘presides’ over an ever shrinking entity, itself under military occupation. Many of his people regularly accuse him of ‘treason’, or at best, of ‘selling out’. On top of this, his party is falling apart. Mohammed Dahlan is already acting with the air of presidency. Now based in Egypt, he has been gathering support for himself amidst scattered talks about his desire to form an alternative party to Fatah.
Worse yet, Mohamed Nazzal, a visible member of Hamas’ political bureau in Damascus told Aljazeera.net on February 19 that despite Hamas’ insistence on the inclusion of Marwan Barghouti (a leading Fatah figure who is greatly supported by the movement’s youth and strongly disliked by the old guard) in any future prisoner swaps, Israel has removed the latter’s name from the list, at Abbas’ behest.
Abbas’ lack of any meaningful political vision is also promoting other members of his team to speak of political programmes entirely inconsistent with his own style. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee told Reuters in an interview on February 20 — views which he repeated to AFP and Palestinian radio in Arabic — what Palestinians should consider should talks continue to falter. “If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities, if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally.”
Abbas’ answer was his intent to continue negotiating, and that he was “optimistic and hopeful.”
It’s unclear where from Abbas’ hope originates. He stands on very shaky grounds, not only in his conditional relationship with Israel, the US and his own party, at home and abroad, but with Hamas as well. His earlier rhetoric about Hamas’s ties to Al Qaeda and the ‘forces of darkness’ are softening, but he knows he has no mandate to reach out to his opponents. But it is increasingly clear to the world that isolating Hamas means the continuation of Gaza’s mass hunger and suffering. This is so extreme that even Europeans are reportedly rethinking their stance on Hamas, which the EU had deemed ‘terrorist’.
If Abbas, however, tried to rethink his relations with Hamas, he would be abandoned by Israel and the US, and might find himself a victim of a calculated coup led by his party’s strongmen. If he continues with the charade of endless and futile talks with Israel, the patience of his people would eventually run out. Considering all of this — Abbas’ shared responsibly for the plight of Gaza, his anti-democratic legacy and his inability to reunite his faltering party — the president seems condemned to a lose-lose scenario, one which would take no less than a miracle to put right.
-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).