Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Did Abbas really say he's ready to call its quits?

Let Palestinians challenge their leadership


Can it be that we won't have Mahmoud Abbas to "kick around" much longer? Abbas is fed up - with Israel, with Hamas, and with the Obama administration for not delivering Binyamin Netanyahu prostrate.

Abbas reportedly told President Barack Obama that he would not be a candidate in the next Palestinian elections he's called for on January 24 unless Israel capitulated to his demands. He supposedly told aides: "Let the Palestinian people go to elections. If it wants to elect Hamas, let it. If it wants to elect Fatah, let it. What will be is what will be, that's not my business any more."

In an interview with Israel Army Radio yesterday, Saeb Erekat, Abbas's negotiator, replied "No comment" when asked if it was true that his boss, currently on a junket to Casablanca, had told Obama he was considering quitting.

Abbas has certainly done little to extricate himself from an admittedly difficult set of circumstances. Egged on by the White House - which has now apparently reversed course - he refused to negotiate with Israel absent a settlement freeze everywhere over the Green Line. The freeze has always been a red herring. Were a peace deal agreed upon, settlements on the Palestinian side of the divide would anyway be uprooted - so how much difference does it make if a settler family in a place destined not to be incorporated into Israel refurbishes its guest room?

Abbas also insists that negotiations pick up from the point where he rejected Ehud Olmert's final, unprecedentedly generous offer. That is not the way of give-and-take. He should have thought harder before walking away from the best offer the Palestinians ever got from an Israeli prime minister.

Even if negotiations resumed, Abbas's intransigence would obstruct progress.

He insists on an Israeli pullback to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines. He says that after a Palestinian state is founded, millions of Palestinians, descendants of the 700,000 original 1948 refugees, should have a right to return to Israel proper. He would insist on creating a militarized state with the power, for example, to invite Iran to set up military bases just a few miles from Tel Aviv. And he has refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

Fatah's General Assembly held in Bethlehem during the summer heard Abbas promise that Fatah would liberate Palestine and "purge" Jerusalem of its "settlers."

If Abbas has been a disappointment to Israel, he must be an even bigger frustration to his own people. The Palestinian polity is today more fragmented than at any time since Yasser Arafat went to his Maker. Chances are slim that presidential and parliamentary elections will actually be held in both the West Bank and Gaza. If they are conducted in the West Bank only, they are likely to harden divisions and only cultivate a deeper sense of disenchantment about the Palestinian future.

It is simply undeniable: Neither Fatah's crooked, dead hand nor Hamas's firm grasp of belligerent medievalism is going to lay the groundwork for a viable Palestinian state.

WHAT TO do? One way forward is to let the Palestinian Authority die a natural death and encourage its replacement with a completely new, apolitical and technocratic provisional Palestinian government.

Its task, with Europeans playing a trusteeship role, would be political institution-building, socialization toward tolerance, the development of transparent government, and day-to-day administration of Palestinian affairs.

Such a provisional government would also assume the PLO's legal standing as representing the Palestinians. But the idea would work only if the Palestinians - perhaps via a referendum in both the West Bank and Gaza - were given the chance to embrace a new beginning... and did so.

A recent New York Times dispatch from Gaza revealed just how fed up modernizing Palestinian elites are with both Fatah and Hamas - while pointing out that they had no mechanism for effecting change.

A referendum that proposes to replace the Fatah-dominated PA and Gaza's Hamas government with an apolitical provisional regime could at least offer Palestinians a means to choose between more Fatah and Hamas, or something far better.

If Abbas is really fed up and ready to go, his departure could presage a revolutionary opportunity.

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