Now, more than ever: Strengthen Abbas
The battle being waged in Gaza may actually be the final showdown between the two main elements of the Palestinian national movement, between those who support compromise and peace with Israel, and the rejectionists of peace.
The opening chapter in this struggle began at the onset of the first intifada in early 1989, when the unified leadership of the intifada, composed of the main factions of the PLO (Fatah, PFLP, DFPL and the communists) openly called for the end of the occupation of 1967 lands and the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel, and not instead of Israel. The Islamists' response to this was the creation of the Hamas alternative.
Hamas, even then rejected the hegemony of the PLO, and even then declared its own policies for directing the intifada. The Unified Leadership declared a general strike on the 9th of every month to mark the intifada, but Hamas declared its own strike days on the 7th of each month.
When the Palestine National Council met in November 1988 to declare statehood and support a political platform of two states for two peoples, this too was rejected by Hamas. In September 1993, when Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles that launched the Oslo process, once again Hamas remained outside the process, later boycotted elections, and then worked to sabotage the peace process through terrorism.
By late 1996, after a series of suicide attacks in Israel, Yasser Arafat understood that he must confront Hamas. He arrested over 1,000 Hamas activists; but after a Friday afternoon attack outside the Palestine mosque in Gaza City in which the Palestinian preventative security troops opened fire on a mostly Hamas crowd, a public outcry led to the release of the Hamas activists from prison. A reticence to further the confrontation ensued.
THE CURRENT round of violence is being incorrectly called a civil war. It is not a war in which the public is involved. It is a war between the main factions' military wings - between Fatah and its militia and Hamas and its military arm. It is a confrontation which may have reached the point of no return, despite both Egyptian and Saudi attempts to reach a cease-fire.
This confrontation is one in which the Palestinian people must make a decision: a choice between further isolation and alliance with Iran and Hizbullah, or staying within the Western sphere of influence and partnership that supports peace.
The decision-making process is currently being waged on the ground between armed militias, and if it remains at that level there is a very strong likelihood that Hamas will come out on top, at least in Gaza. Fatah is much stronger in the West Bank, but right now the battle is being contested mostly in Gaza.
The entire Western world, led by the Quartet, has been speaking about the need to strengthen the moderates and Mahmoud Abbas as their leader. The US government will be providing $84 million in military assistance to Abbas, and that will certainly help, if the money and equipment arrive quickly enough. But more than the military assistance, Abbas and the moderates require political assistance.
It is important to understand that political assistance is not an embrace by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or President George W. Bush, or empty statements about moving checkpoints and improving the quality of life of Palestinians. That may sell well on CNN, but in the West Bank, where the Palestinians must spend hours every day moving through endless checkpoints to get to work and school, the proof is in the pudding, and so far the pudding is rotten.
ABBAS WILL be stronger when he has real political achievements to bring home to his people. The bottom line is that, as a leader, he must provide hope that is based on a real political horizon. As such, his position is no different than that of Prime Minister Olmert.
The recent meeting of the Quartet may have opened the door for both of these weak leaders. In the statement last week following the meeting of the Quartet Principals, they wrote: "The Quartet welcomed the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas, and Secretary of State Rice, that could begin to define more clearly the political horizon for the Palestinian people, and help engender a sense of partnership… The Quartet noted the continuing importance of the Arab Peace Initiative, particularly its reflection of a shared commitment to a two-state solution."
There are two possible directions (connected to each other) that the Quartet has offered the parties: (1) to enter into permanent status talks, defining more clearly the political horizon, or (2) the Arab peace initiative, which provides the mechanism for comprehensive peace in the region.
The Quartet has essentially told the parties that it is okay to redesign the road map and no longer a need to be stalemated by the inability and unwillingness of both sides to implement phase 1 of the road map, prior to moving on to phase 2 and 3.
Phase 3 of the road map deals with permanent status and originally could only be addressed once the parties completed earlier phases. By going directly to phase 3 now, there is a possibility of agreeing to a binding framework agreement that would then provide enough incentive to go back to phase 1. The incentive of knowing the end game and the timetable for reaching it provides the political horizon that is the real substance of strengthening Abbas.
In order to ensure that the moderates win in Palestine, Israel and the US must stay out of the way of the fighting and should not make speeches on behalf of Abbas. Empty promises of confidence-building measures that are never implemented only serve to further weaken the Palestinian leader.
Those who want to support the moderates in Palestine and Abbas, their leader, must advance a genuine peace process. Creating hope based on political progress is the best ammunition in the battle for peace.
The writer is the Co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
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