Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen): The Arafat Legacy, the Challenges, the New Perspectives
People expected disturbances and chaos, but they were proved wrong. With the passing of President Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians and their National Authority faced the challenge of showing to the world a high level of maturity by assuring an orderly and peaceful transfer of power. Both leadership and people rose admirably to the occasion, as Rawhi Fatouh, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), assumed the responsibilities of interim president for a period of 60 days, in accordance with the stipulations of Palestinian basic law.

On January 9, 2005, Palestinians elected their new president under the watchful eyes of more than 800 international observers, who praised the display of democracy and transparency in the voting process. Seven candidates representing various political factions ran for the presidency. The campaigns were serious and spirited, yet nonviolent and highly organized. Despite of the fact that all polls gave a clear lead to Mahmoud Abbas, the candidate of the Fateh movement, the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), all other contenders worked hard to gain voters support, as they viewed the presidential elections an opportunity to prepare the ground for the upcoming PLC elections scheduled for July 2005. Abbas won with 62.5 percent of the votes and was confirmed as the new Palestinian president in a ceremony of transference of power. This was genuine Palestinian democracy at work.

A Tragic Death

With the heavy burden that he inherits, President Abbas is in no enviable position. Arafat's death came after three years of being under siege and imprisoned among the rubble of his office/ residence in the Muqata'a in Ramallah. Prior to his death, he was subjected to an intensive and systematic character assassination campaign. He was accused of involvement in turning the second intifada into an armed uprising, and of financing attacks against Israelis, including civilians. He was boycotted by most leaders of the international community, who had buckled under American pressure. Arafat denied any connection with terror, insisting that the smear campaign was designed to de-legitimize him and to force him to cave in to Israeli territorial and political dictates aimed at imposing a solution that fell far short of the minimum Palestinian national demands and requirements. Espousing the Israeli position, the U.S. administration insisted on a change of Palestinian leadership; many Israeli leaders called for more extreme measures - the expulsion of Arafat, even his liquidation.

Arafat's sudden, tragic death came as a shock to every Palestinian. The days pass but he remains in the hearts and thoughts of his people. He was and will continue to be the symbol of the Palestinian national struggle, the man who founded the Fateh movement in the early 1960s, who led the Palestinian national movement for decades, and who stood undeterred in the face of all the pressures placed on him to give in. He is considered a shaheed (martyr) who sacrificed his life for the sake of the Palestinian national cause. His mysterious death and the absence of any medical explanation have led to various speculations regarding its cause. Shortly after his funeral, his nephew, Nasser al-Qudwa, the new Palestinian minister of foreign affairs and former Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, declared it "the duty of the Palestinian leadership to make every possible effort to get at the truth and find out what caused his death."

Severe Deterioration

The four years preceding Arafat's death have seen a severe deterioration in Palestinian life, both on individual and national levels. Israel's harsh collective punishment has left their infrastructure in tatters and has led to a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty. The Israeli measures were coupled with internal restrictions on the freedom of movement of persons and goods, and the fragmentation of the Palestinian territories into separate zones or "Bantustans" as many people would rightly call them.

The Israeli army implemented a policy of illegal execution - targeted assassination as they were termed - of Palestinian activists, often causing major collateral damage as civilian lives were lost and property was destroyed. All the while, extreme right-wing elements within the Israeli government continued their intensive activities of Jewish settlement expansion in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and the building of the so-called separation wall, a de facto annexing of huge tracts of Palestinian land to Israel, integrating the infrastructure of the Jewish settlements into Israel, thus impeding any future withdrawal. Security and the fight against terror were the pretexts used to justify an expansionist ideology.

The loss of hope among Palestinians in any eventual political settlement, and the poverty and desperate conditions to which the harsh Israeli measures had led them, served to breed hatred and extremism among the population. Violence extended beyond resistance to the occupation itself, as suicide attacks targeted Israeli civilians. Both sides became locked in a vicious circle of violence and counter-violence, each side accusing the other of promoting violence and insisting that it be the first to stop.

A Heavy Agenda

President Abbas has his work cut out for him. On the domestic front, he has to convince his people that he can fill Arafat's shoes; that he will not compromise on their basic rights, or allow the outbreak of civil war; and that he will not be a puppet in Israeli or American hands. Equally, he has to prove that he is able to end his people's suffering; that he can enforce the rule of law, restore domestic security and public order, and bring about economic prosperity and boom at the same time. His agenda already includes the weighty issues of the reformation of the judiciary and the security apparatuses, the development of the institutions of governance and the political system, the improvement of the financial and economic systems, and, most important, the resumption of a political process that will end the Israeli military incursions into and siege of Palestinian towns.

In his inauguration speech on January 15, 2005, Abbas referred to all these imperatives. He also identified the major challenges and the Palestinian aspirations and concerns, spelling out his position vis-à-vis all the issues at stake:

a. Negotiations are the strategic choice of the PLO as the means of achieving a just peace and attaining the aspirations of the Palestinian people, emphasizing the Palestinian readiness to resume permanent-status negotiations;

b. An end to the occupation, and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, stressing that an end to the occupation is a prerequisite for the achievement and success of a Palestinian democracy;  

c. A just and mutually agreed upon solution to the refugee problem, based on international resolutions, especially UN Resolution 194 and the resolution of the Beirut Arab summit of April 2002;

d. A commitment to the Road Map and the responsibilities and obligations emanating from it, on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides;

e. A stress on the need for Israel to immediately stop its assassination policy, end the siege on Palestinian towns, stop arrests, release prisoners, refrain from land confiscation, settlement activity and the building of the separation wall;

f. A call upon the international community to play a direct role in monitoring the implementation of the Road Map.

Naturally, the question on everyone's mind is whether the new president will be able to initiate a move in the right direction, and whether he will succeed in his extremely delicate balancing act and accomplish the heavy tasks that lay ahead. He has, on the one hand, to deal with the concerns of his own constituency, the Palestinians, who wish to see a long-awaited positive change in their daily life. Thus, he has to put an end to the reigning chaos and carry on with the reforms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions, and, above all, restore freedom and dignity to his people. On the other hand, he has to address Israel's demands that attacks against Israelis stop; and additionally, he has to meet the expectations of the international community, which call for democracy, financial reform and transparency, as well as a halt to the violence and terror, in order to meet the Israeli conditions for the resumption of political negotiations - a very tall order. So far he has taken several crucial steps proving that he is on the right track.

Similar Concerns, Different Priorities

Admittedly, the concerns of both sides coincide and intertwine; their priorities, however, differ. Israel and the U.S have been fast to demand security reforms and an end to the attacks against Israelis. The Palestinians need to see tangible improvements on the ground - a sense of security; better economic conditions; an end to Israeli killings, house demolition and tree uprooting; and an end to the siege and restrictions on their movement so that they can get on with their lives. The question remains, how can the cycle of violence be broken, even as a political process kicks off?

There is no easy answer. President Abbas has to start putting his own house in order. This will entail replacing senior officials, mainly within the security apparatus, fighting corruption, and reforming the PA. All these measures need to be implemented for the sake of the national interest of the Palestinians, and should not be viewed as an attempt to meet and satisfy Israeli-U.S. requests.

The president has already had the occasion to prove his willingness to translate words into deeds. Following the cease-fire that was announced at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit [February 2005], Hamas shelled Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip with al-Qassam rockets in retaliation for the killing of two Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli army. The Hamas claim that Israel did not respect the cease-fire coincided with riots inside Gaza city and an assault by Palestinian militants on a Palestinian jail. Abbas' reaction was swift. He fired a number of high-ranking officers, and stepped up the work on the reform of the security forces. At the same time, he went to Gaza and held intensive talks with the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions - all of whom subsequently issued statements declaring their full commitment to the cease-fire.

Reciprocity - A Key

Despite of recent official declarations by Israel that it would make painful concessions, release prisoners, and withdraw from Palestinian cities, nothing has changed on the ground. Scores of bulldozers are still working around the clock for the building of the separation wall; daily orders are issued for the confiscation of thousands of acres of Palestinian land to be annexed within the wall or for the expansion of Jewish settlements. If Israel persists in this line of action, the window of opportunity provided by the election of Mahmoud Abbas will sooner or later be closed.

Israel cannot pretend to remain merely a bystander, but must take active measures to normalize the conditions of Palestinian daily life. No one can expect Abbas to unilaterally stop the attacks against Israelis if Israel doesn't freeze all settlement (colonies) activity, including the building of the wall; if it doesn't desist from its assassination of Palestinian activists; and if it doesn't proceed to lift the restrictions on the Palestinians, allowing them to live in peace and dignity. Israel must show its serious and sincere intentions in dealing with Abbas by taking reciprocal steps.

Elections for the PLC will be held on July 17. They should be used as a lever to launch a process of qualitative change in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Preparations for these elections should start at least 100 days before polling day. A mutual cease-fire and the full implementation of the first phase of the Road Map can open new horizons for the political process which should start with a clear-cut concept. Its final goal should be the ending of the Israeli occupation, the establishment of a Palestinian sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a fair and just solution to the Palestine refugee problem. These are the basic requirements for the achievement of the two-state vision: Israel and Palestine as sovereign states living side by side in peace and harmony.