Palestinian Balancing Act: Peace Prospects Hinge on Abbas’ Agility

Ever since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, optimism about the prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli peace has been in the air.

For months, the Bush administration and the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon have pinned the blame for the violence and the stalemate on the late Palestinian leader. It seemed reasonable to assume that a new era has begun. The Palestinian presidential elections held today will most likely result in the election of Mahmoud Abbas—known as Abu Mazen—who is favored by both Israel and the United States, as well as most Arab leaders. But the reality is far more challenging.

The election campaign has revealed the problems facing Abbas: On the one hand, he needs the trust and support of his Palestinian constituency, which has always worried that he may be too compromising on core issues. On the other, he needs to have a good working relationship with the Israelis and the Bush administration as he stakes his reputation on his ability to revive serious negotiations.

This will not be an easy task, as the events of the past week demonstrate. In his attempt to energize his Fatah base and get out the vote, especially among Gaza refugees, he invoked the right of Palestinians to return to their original homes in Israel, which raised red flags for Israelis.

In his commitment to reject violence, he maintained the trust of many Israelis but lost the support of many Palestinians, half of whom want to maintain a militant option.

For now, these moves are mitigated by an assumption by most that these are strictly campaign positions. The judgment will undoubtedly be harsher after the elections.

Abbas’ first task is to establish a sense of popular legitimacy. He started in an unenviable position. Regarded as weak and as Washington’s man, Abbas was overshadowed by Arafat’s legacy. Public-opinion polls showed him trailing a younger Palestinian leader serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison, Marwan Barghouti.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, had gained popularity in the Palestinian areas at the expense of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s main faction, Fatah, which Abbas represents. In the end, neither Barghouti nor Hamas entered the elections, which meant no serious competitor for Abbas, who also had the backing of the PLO and the Fatah organizations behind him.

This is likely to assure Abu Mazen’s victory, but also reduce its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Needs credibility

Everyone wants free elections, but people want choices, real choices. Elections are held even under authoritarian regimes, but few people take the outcome as a true reflection of public will when the outcome of an election is entirely predictable. This may explain why a candidate like Mustafa Barghouti (a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti), who has no organizational support behind him, has been polling over 20 percent of public support in pre-election polls.

Abbas will have to win public support after the elections if he is to be able to negotiate credibly with the Israelis.

For now, Abu Mazen’s balancing act has been predicated on a vision of what drives Israeli and Palestinian attitudes most. His “red line” in his relationship with Israel has been to remain steadfast in his opposition to the use of violence against Israelis. This is his most central strategic decision toward Israel. This, he hopes, allows him to take tougher negotiating positions on issues such as the right of return and Jerusalem. That approach adds to his public support without seriously undermining his relationship with Israel.

In fact, during the failed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David, Abu Mazen was in favor of firmer Palestinian negotiating positions than other members of the negotiating team. In his important relationship with the Bush administration, he hopes to gain continued support not only by his rejection of violence, but also by a projection of a commitment to serious reforms of the Palestinian authority, which the administration has made a central issue.

If he is seen to be responsive, the administration could claim political credit, which could turn into a U.S. stake in supporting Abbas.

If the mere rhetorical balancing act during the campaign was difficult to maintain without serious criticism, the implementation of these positions will be doubly difficult:

  • Most important, can Abu Mazen enforce the “no violence” strategy, either through a deal with Hamas or by risking civil war in trying to disarm them?
  • Can he do so early, as stipulated by the “road map”—the peace plan calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state—before he offers his public something tangible?
  • Can he insist on the right of return as a negotiating strategy without losing Israeli public opinion?
  • Can he implement real reform without losing the critical support of the institutions he needs to hold back Hamas?

Abu Mazen is not Yasser Arafat, and his limited popularity and assertiveness in the shadow of the late Palestinian leader cannot be used as a guide in assessing his likely behavior after his probable election. Here, the comparison between the hugely popular Arab-nationalist former president of Egypt Gamal Abdul Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, comes to mind.

Nasser and Sadat

Before Nasser’s death in 1970, Sadat was an unassuming loyal subordinate who was taken lightly by most analysts. Yet he moved swiftly to assert his power with dramatic military and political moves, ultimately leading to a remarkable peace treaty with Israel that changed the tide of politics in the Middle East. Abbas can certainly carve out his own legacy quickly and grow out of Arafat’s shadow.

But the comparison between Sadat and Abbas has its limits. Sadat was a president of the most popular and powerful Arab country. Egypt had the power to wage war and its alliances were consequential around the world. Sadat’s moves occurred during the Cold War, when the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Middle East gave Egypt special leverage with the United States.

Even so, few analysts believe that Sadat could have embarked on his bold moves toward Israel had he not first acquired the legitimacy as a warrior by waging, together with Syria, the painful 1973 war to restore part of the Sinai.

In the end, Sadat still lost his life. Abu Mazen does not have the power of Egypt nor the leverage of the former Soviet Union. He still needs to earn the support of the Palestinian public to offer the kind of compromises that a peace agreement requires—and he needs to do it while rejecting the use of violence as a method.

Abbas also remains highly dependent on the actions of others. Most of all, he will be dependent on the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the degree of diplomatic involvement of the Bush administration and the extent to which Arab leaders will lend their support.

For now, all are behaving as though there is a historic opportunity presented by the death of Arafat. In reality, it is hard to differentiate tactical short-term calculations from profound change in strategic outlook in assessing the current conciliatory approach of the parties.

For Sharon, there are many good reasons to cooperate with Abu Mazen in the short term, regardless of his broader strategic objectives. He is in the midst of implementing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and would benefit from the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, particularly if it can restrain Hamas and prevent it from taking over after Israeli withdrawal.

Arafat as obstacle

Sharon had said all along that he viewed Arafat as the main obstacle to peace, and needs to show that his passing brought new opportunities. And he knows that his key ally, President Bush, would like to see a little more quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front as he tackles the pressing Iraqi situation, especially as the elections there draw near.

Bush, too, has an interest in the Palestinian elections, as the issue of democracy has become one of his central themes. Arab governments want to prevent Hamas from taking over, and the Egyptians in particular have an interest in an orderly Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which borders their territory.

But if these tactical interests are the primary reasons for optimism, the parties are setting themselves up for a risky disappointment.

Besides Abbas’ own position, one critical factor more than any other will affect the prospect of peace: The extent to which Sharon will be responsive on the outline of a final settlement that the Palestinians can live with. Here, it is unlikely that any Palestinian leader can accept less than what Yasser Arafat rejected.

Sharon, by most accounts, seeks merely an interim arrangement without tackling all the final-status issues. It is unlikely that Abbas’ public can allow him to make the tough compromises without knowing what the end result will be. Certainly, implementing any agreement could take time and be based on sequential arrangements. But unless the basic outlines of the result are known at the outset, interim arrangements are perfect opportunities for those who want to disrupt the process.

Today, even with the Palestinian elections, there are many more people on both sides seeking disruption than there were four years ago.