The Abbas problem: Sharon's Partner or Yasser Redux?

Bradley Burston


Tevet 22, 5765

No one doubts the courage of Mahmoud Abbas.

In the blood-soaked course of the Intifada, the professorially unglamorous Abbas, 69, gained sudden world stature as a lone voice for moderation in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and as the most likely partner for peacemaking in a post-Arafat epoch.

Now, however, an abrupt re-invention has vaulted Abbas onto the shoulders of gunmen and into the smiling public embrace of Marwan Barghouti's wife, in a campaign swing that has him lauding the legacy of Yasser Arafat, and vowing to protect the very men who head Israel's hit lists of most-wanted terrorists.

The new Abbas caught the world by surprise. Israel, for its part, is anything but pleased. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's administration had hoped that Abbas could provide a bridge for a coordinated withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and scattered settlements in the northern West Bank.

For weeks, however, Israeli officials, gritting their teeth against saying too much, have wondered if Abbas is likely to be a partner to peacemaking or to the armed and dangerous. No matter what, they have said, once elected he will have little time to decide between them.

First to call for halt to terror attacks
Hours after Palestinians first used firearms on Israelis at the outset of the Intifada, Abbas was the only senior Palestinian official to argue against it, appealing in vain to Yasser Arafat to denounce an armed uprising.

Later, with the Intifada at its lethal height and Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades competing for the title of most civilians killed within Israeli cities, Abbas was the first Palestinian leader to openly call for a halt to suicide bombings, ambush slayings and assault rifle drive- by shootings.

Just weeks ago, in perhaps the most telling incident, Abbas, heir apparent to Yasser Arafat, was attending a mass gathering to mourn the death days before of the Palestinian Authority chairman when dozens of Fatah gunmen burst into the crowded Gaza City tent, denouncing the Abbas as an "agent for the Americans."

The Fatah men then opened fire, killing an Abbas bodyguard and a Palestinian security officer.

Abbas, unfazed, dismissed the shooting as "random" and not in his direction.

President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - blamed by many for having done far too little to shore up Abbas in an abortive 2003 term as the first Palestinian prime minister - have all pointed to Abbas as the man who could restore the withering dream of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

With Arafat's death and the mainsteam Fatah movement's anointment of Abbas who, having talked the talk of moderation, could now walk the obstacle-fraught walk that could lead from disengagement to restoration of a peace process.

Enter Abbas the candidate.

Written off by Palestinian political analysts as devastatingly unpopular and out of step with the Palestinian street, Abbas took to the campaign trail with a vengeance, taking Israeli officials aback with a stream of tough talk anchored with adoring references to the legacy of Yasser Arafat, and unstintingly laudatory praise of militants.

On Friday, Abbas lit a large torch in the main square of Gaza City to mark Fatah's 40th anniversary, dated from, the January 1, 1965 date of the group's first attack on an Israeli target, the bombing of a water tower.

"The one who fired the first shot, the one who lit the first spark and the first torch 40 years ago, the martyr Yasser Arafat is alive and we will continue his path," said Abbas, over shots in the air and cheers.

Himself a refugee from the northern city of Safed, Abbas has always been known as having negotiating positions at least as tough as those put forth - or fallen back on - as Arafat himself.

However, it was the new style as much as the new substance that had Israeli officials believing that instead of a new partner, they might be confronting Yasser Redux.

Kicking off his campaign in a Ramallah speech last month, Abbas declared that peace will not come until Israel takes down all settlements, returns to the pre-1967 war borders, accepts a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, accepts the return of Palestinian refugees and releases all Palestinian prisoners including Marwan Barghouti.

Exchanging smiling embraces on a dais with the wife of Fatah firebrand Barghouti - serving five life terms in a Be'er Sheva prison for ties to deadly terror attacks - Abbas was only warming up.

In Jenin, which Abbas pointedly quoted Arafat as having hailed as "Jeningrad," Abbas found himself on the shoulders of one of Israel's most-wanted fugitives, local Al Aqsa Martyrs commander Zakaria Zubeidi, and the recipient of a live-fire endorsement by dozens of Zubeidi's men, firing into the air.

Press photos showed Abbas waving in front of a giant poster of Arafat, the hands of the late leader and his deputy in strikingly similar juxtaposition.

In Rafah at the weekend, members of the Fatah-born Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia bore Abbas to a speech in which the PLO leader declared:

"We will not forget those wanted by Israel. These are the heroes that are fighting for freedom."

He picked up the theme at a mass Sunday rally in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. "We say to our fighting brothers that are wanted by Israel, we will not rest until you can enjoy a life of security, peace, and dignity, so you can live in your country with total freedom," he said.

Abbas vowed not to rest until a independent Palestinian state was established, settlements were dismantled and Palestinian refugees were given their rights.

"The principles of Yasser Arafat, and his sayings, are his will and it is our duty to implement it," Abbas said.

Shalom slams Abbas remarks
Israel's initial response to the Abbas campaign platform came last week. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was plainly unamused.

"At a time when there is perhaps a great atmosphere of hope here in the region and in the world as a whole, harsh statements such as these are not encouraging," Shalom told Israel Radio of the Abbas campaign launch in Ramallah. "This speech does not bode well."

According to Shalom, Israel could not write off Abbas's remarks as mere campaign rhetoric. "You cannot speak of 'continuing the struggle in all forms,' or to sell the illusion of the refugees, nor to speak of Jerusalem in that manner," Shalom said.

Shalom cited a speech that Arafat gave at the 1993 signing ceremony for the Oslo accords in Washington. "He gave a very extreme, very forceful speech, whereupon then-government spokesmen tried to say that this was Arafat's opening position.

"That opening position remained throughout, and perhaps became more extreme."

According to Shalom, past statements by Abbas had been more pragmatic and conciliatory. "Since he entered his post [as PLO chairman] he has spoken of preserving the legacy of Arafat, which for us is a legacy of terrorism."

An aide to Abbas, Ahmed Subah, has been widely quoted recently as saying that the real agenda of the PLO chief was "ending the Israeli occupation through peaceful negotiations, attaining security for Palestinian citizens and achieving reform and development."

In any event, Shalom said, the crucial test of Abbas's intentions would not be long in coming.

"These things cannot be ignored," he said of Abbas's campaign rhetoric. "They are very, very unpleasant. We will do everything that we can at this stage so that they can hold proper elections.

"However, we expect that the next day they will enter into real action against both incitement and terrorism. Otherwise, it will be more or less as it was under Arafat."