Sunday, January 25, 2009

Out of the Rubble: Palestinian Politics at a Breaking Point - Mouin Rabbani

The National, January 23, 2009 - ....While many are arguing that Abbas is now paying the price for his passivity while Israel slaughtered Palestinians in Gaza, this is only one part of the story. At least as important is the manner in which he has conducted himself since December 27 – comprehensively out of touch with his own people, as if deliberately so, and dealing with the Gaza Strip as if it is a foreign country he has never heard of.

In his initial response Abbas laid responsibility for the conflict at Hamas’s doorstep, in one stroke reducing his role to that of a factional leader opportunistically siding with his cousin against his brother. More to the point, he unleashed the full power of his security forces against his own people. Not to prevent a Hamas coup in the West Bank, or even attacks against Israel, but to suppress pro-Palestinian demonstrations of the kind permitted even within Israel.

He responded to Israel’s launching of a land offensive on January 3 by announcing that he was delaying for one day his visit to the UN Security Council. Not to lead his people, but rather to meet Nicolas Sarkozy. Since then he has barely visited Palestine; on his last sojourn he stayed only long enough to inform the Qataris that he could not attend their emergency meeting to discuss the war.

That last was the mother of all miscalculations. Where Arafat would either have skipped all summits, or alternatively insisted on attending precisely because of pressure to stay away, Abbas produced one lame excuse after another: that the Doha meeting lacked a quorum and was therefore not a formal Arab League meeting (as if anything less is undeserving of his presence); that he couldn’t obtain an Israeli permit; and that he was under too much pressure to attend.

Rebuffing Qatari assurances that no other Palestinians would be invited, he didn’t seem to realise that even an empty Palestinian chair would be a major scandal at home. As it happened, he cleared the way for Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal to speak to the world on behalf of the Palestinian people. If Meshaal has yet to succeed in wearing the cloak of Palestinian national leadership, he has at least irrevocably wrested it from the shoulders of Mahmoud Abbas.

There is no longer anything Abbas can say or do to remain in power. The only relevant question is if he will jump before he is pushed – with the coup de grace almost certain to come from within the Fatah movement or the ranks of the public rather than Islamist circles.

No less importantly, there is now also nothing his sponsors and allies can do to save his skin. Utterly cynical initiatives like that by the Europeans promising aid to a national unity government – which, when formed in 2007, served as a pretext for them to continue to boycott the PA – will achieve nothing. Bribes, threats, even wars or peace conferences can no longer prevent the emergence of a new Palestinian national movement. We do not yet know its shape, nor how it will emerge. At this point the only certainty is that unless it can more authentically represent the will and aspirations of its people – by challenging rather than accommodating the status quo – and thereby make more effective progress toward basic objectives, it will not last long.

Mouin Rabbani is a contributing editor at Middle East Report.

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