Palestinian intellectual: New PA head to wield little power

Fayssal Hourani says supporters of leading candidate Mahmoud Abbas have very limited expectations of him

By Amira Hass


Tevet 26, 5765

Whoever is elected to head the Palestinian Authority on Sunday will bear heavy responsibilities but have no real power to carry them out, a Palestinian author and peace activist warned yesterday.

The candidates, said Fayssal Hourani, "attribute greater importance to the election than it really has. Regardless of who is elected, it is well known that he will have no serious authority. The burden he will bear on his shoulders is very heavy, but the situation, under Israeli occupation, doesn't give him the necessary tools [to deal with it]."

Hourani, 66, was one of the first members of the Palestine Liberation Organization to meet with Israeli peace activists in the 1970s. He opposed the Oslo Accord from the start, believing it will not lead to a two-state solution, but returned nevertheless to the territories in the wake of Oslo along with other Palestinian exiles. Today, he divides his time between Vienna, Ramallah and Gaza, and is working on a study of Palestinian political parties over the last decade.

Hourani believes that supporters of frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] have very limited expectations of him. "They see him as a practical man who might bring about improvements in their difficult daily lives. They are currently limiting their expectations to concrete matters such as the ability to study, or to move from place to place."

There are some among the Palestinian political and economic elite who hope that Abbas will restart the peace process, Hourani acknowledged. But he said that he had yet to meet anyone "who thinks that there will be peace in the foreseeable future."

Hourani himself does not believe that Abbas will manage to achieve even the limited improvements for which the voters are hoping. He thinks that Israel will treat Abbas no differently than it did Yasser Arafat. Nevertheless, he sees two positive elements in the upcoming election: It has set the Palestinian political arena in motion, and it proves that the Palestinians, contrary to Israel's doomsday scenarios, are choosing Arafat's successor peacefully.

The campaign, he said, had moved the public debate from narrow issues of "a Qassam [rocket] here or not" to the truly important questions - what the Palestinians want, what Israel intends, what America wants and is capable of doing, what the chances are for a Palestinian state.

What was noteworthy about the campaign, he said, was that there was no serious argument between the different camps. All of the candidates, he noted, were against the occupation, for reform, against the separation fence, with the differences mainly ones of style.

This was partly because the election had come about so quickly (Palestinian law mandates new leadership elections 60 days after an incumbent dies) but also partly because Palestinian political parties were becoming increasingly less important, Hourani said.

He noted that the two leading candidates, Abbas and Mustafa Barghouti, both had a record of being at odds with their parties: Abbas resigned from Fatah's central committee, while Barghouti quit the Communist Party (now the People's Party) altogether. "The public doesn't care whether Barghouti is still in the party or not, or whether Abu Mazen is officially part of the Fatah leadership," he said.

Hourani praised the fact that Abbas was using clear and direct language in his campaigning. That, he said, was something the Palestinians needed. "Due to the adoption of unclear messages and methods of action, they gave themselves the image of aggressors, even though they have been hit hard by Israel in recent years," he said. "Fighting messages obscured the fact that most of the Palestinian public supports a peaceful solution. Abu Mazen is reformulating the language and the leadership, and will be careful not to give Israel excuses to justify its aggressive policy."

This clear language, he added, was improving Abbas's image among the Palestinian public.

Asked about Abbas's recent description of Israel as "the Zionist enemy" that outraged many Israelis, Hourani responded: "I don't understand what the Israelis want. Should Abu Mazen have termed it `the neighbor who paid a friendly visit to Beit Lahia and killed six children?'"