Abbas needs to stay moderatePalestine’s new direction [Archives:2005/810/Opinion]

January 24 2005

By Daoud Kuttab
The victory of Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian presidential election poses a huge challenge to the Palestinian leadership. By being voted chairman of the PLO's executive committee hours after the death of Yasser Arafat, Abbas clinched the support of the organization that represents all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora. Popular election as President of the Palestinian National Authority gives Abbas the grassroots legitimacy to carry out his political program.

That program, while similar to Arafat's, differs in key ways. Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) has been publicly and consistently critical of what he calls the “militarization of the intifada.” Even before Arafat's death, Abbas argued that the use of force by militants weakens the Palestinian negotiating position. He stuck to this position throughout his electoral campaign, refusing the demands of hard-line Palestinian factions that he apologize for his previous statements.

Abbas conducts himself in a business-like manner, and he strongly believes in the rule of law and in the need for real civilian governance to assume preeminence in Palestinian politics. In this he also differs from Arafat, who believed that the revolutionary mindset must continue so as long as Palestinians lived under an illegal foreign occupation. Until liberation, there could be no business as usual.

By winning election on a clear anti-violence and pro-rule of law platform, Abbas has the mandate and the responsibility to carry out this policy. He needs to make it clear to every armed Palestinian that there will be no tolerance for any unofficial group carrying arms or conducting military attacks from Palestinian territory.

In order to preserve national unity, Abbas will obviously need to use all his persuasive skills to convince radical groups (some in his own Fatah movement) to respect that approach. As chairman of the PLO, he will be under extreme pressure not to delegitimize the internationally sanctioned acts of resistance against Israeli military targets. In order to counter that pressure, he will have to show that a cessation of violence is in the higher interest of Palestinians.

Abbas will find it equally challenging to apply rule-of-law principles to a traumatized community that is reeling after nearly five years of violence, oppression, and draconian travel restrictions imposed by the Israelis. As in the issue of the militarization of the intifada, this is not a simple matter, as it concerns forces outside the control of Abbas and his government.

Nevertheless, internal policies will be of grave importance. The day-to-day lives – and livelihoods – of Palestinians need immediate improvement. The Israeli-built wall to the west of the West Bank means that Palestinian unemployment will continue to rise and living standards will continue to drop. To counter this, Abbas will have to seek external Arab and international support. The real need is to encourage investment, primarily from Palestinians and Arabs. But this is unlikely without major legal and administrative reforms, and, more generally, good governance and ironclad application of the rule of law.

The key to establishing civil order is peace. No matter how persuasive Abbas is in convincing radical groups to put down their arms, a unilateral ceasefire will not last long if it is not mutual. The role of the Israeli occupation forces will thus be crucial in determining the success of Abbas's daunting mission. Indeed, the task that Abbas faces will become impossible if the Israeli policy of “targeted killings” is allowed to continue while Palestinian leaders are working seriously to put an end to acts of violence against Israelis.

Ultimately, the main agenda for the new Palestinian president in negotiations with Israel will be to push the Israelis to make good on their repeated international assurances that a viable contiguous Palestinian state is a realistic goal in the near future. But if left to Israelis and Palestinians alone, the goal of Palestinian independence within the 1967 borders of Palestine will most likely remain out of reach. The international community, lead by the United States, must invest effort and political capital to realize this goal.

The new Palestinian president faces a challenging agenda and high popular expectations. Much will depend on how Abbas handles himself and how he governs. But the ultimate question is what Israel and the international community will do if Abbas fulfills his pledge to end anti-Israeli violence and apply the rule of law in a functioning democracy. Palestinians have chosen; now the world must do so as well.

Daoud Kuttab is Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah, Palestine. His email is [email protected]