Will Abbas Withstand Domestic and Foreign Pressure?

by Mamdouh Nofal on 27/05/2003

Since his appointment as prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas has faced considerable obstacles, both domestic and foreign. These were not limited to the negative attitude of the opposition faction toward the creation of the position of prime minister and his appointment to that position. We all remember the conflict within the Palestinian Authority over that same subject, ever since the PLO was founded in 1965.

In order to form the government, all remembered Yasser Arafat who remained for 18 months captive in his office in Ramallah not receiving even a single phone call. Suddenly, the Americans lifted the ban against him, and many contacted him, some threatening and intimidating him in order to gain his support in forming of the Palestinian government and to facilitate Abbas’ mission. Had it not been for the strong intervention of Egypt, and Arafat’s blessings, this government would never have seen the light of day.

Still, despite the reservations people in the West Bank and Gaza had against the new government, they remained hopeful that it would be able to achieve something, especially that it enjoyed American and international support. Many believed that President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair would exert pressure on Sharon to resume negotiations and start implementing the Roadmap. Moreover, people expected that the brutal Israeli practices would come to an end, and that measures would be taken by Israel to ease the restrictions on Palestinians and make their lives easier. They also assumed that the house arrest against Arafat would be lifted, and that Israel and the U.S. would end the campaign against him, which alleges that he is responsible for supporting the suicide attacks against Israelis. But none of this happened.

Moreover, the Palestinian opposition isn’t hiding its annoyance with Abbas’ ability to form his government. Some even claim that Abbas’ real mission is to widen the split among Palestinians, and accuse him of seeking to carry out an American-Israeli scheme aimed at suppressing the opposition and ending the Intifada.

There is no doubt that the domestic Palestinian struggle has negatively influenced the image of the prime minister and his government, before it even had the opportunity to implement its program. The opposition directed two accusations against it: the first is that it is prepared to offer concessions that affect the basic Palestinian position, and the second is that it is a normal government that lacks a particular flavor that would distinguish it from previous governments. Moreover, the government’s reform program did not involve any unusual move in that direction. A closer look into these two accusations shows that the former is very unfair and is based on prejudice, including misinterpretations about the ideas of the prime minister, while others were influenced by the American-Israeli position that undermined the position of Abbas, when his attitude was praised. The second accusation, regarding reform, is in my view true. The Abbas government was formed as a result of considerations that had to do with political calculations, in which reform plays a minor role.

But the opposition’s accusations went even further. They deliberately highlighted the government’s inability to enforce security. In the early days of the government, Hamas and other groups carried several attacks against Israeli civilian targets. The Palestinians were surprised by the accusations directed against Arafat without providing any proof that linked him to these attacks. The fact is that these attacks were an ambush to the Abbas government to show its weakness, as well as to undermine the international peace effort.

The orders were issued to carry out the attacks to coincide with the visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and on the eve of the first summit between Abbas and Ariel Sharon. The attacks were intended as a message from Hamas to all those involved in the peace effort which says: first, the government of Abbas, like previous governments, does not represent us. And that we don’t agree to its political program. Second, the government will not be able to halt our military operations, and, third, the triumph of Bush and Blair in the war on Iraq, and the threats to Syria, Iran, Lebanon and North Korea have failed to intimidate us.

No doubt Sharon got the message in time. He used it well during his meeting with Abbas in order to emphasize the need to combat terror before resuming any negotiations. He also postponed his trip to Washington in order avoid coming under pressure from Bush to declare his support of the Roadmap before securing fundamental amendments to it that would deplete it of any real value.

But while it is true that Sharon’s tactics have failed to provide security for the Israelis or to destroy the military infrastructure of Hamas, the question that Hamas and other supporters of suicide operations have to answer is whether such fact is worth the huge damage these operations have brought upon the Palestinian civilians?

I believe that opinion polls provide the answer. According to these polls, 72 percent of the Palestinians oppose the suicide operations. And if Sharon rejects the Roadmap because it conflicts with his ideological convictions, it is hardly prudent for Hamas to provide justifications for Sharon to oppose the plan.

In any case, Abbas has no option but to defend the national interests of the Palestinian people. It was a good move on his part to go to Gaza seeking a dialogue with Hamas. Will the leadership of Hamas interact with such dialogue, or will it seek to undermine it as it did with the Cairo discussions?