Out of pocket
One hundred days into his presidency Mahmoud Abbas is a disappointment, and not only to the Israelis, writes Graham Usher in Ramallah
When Ariel Sharon met George Bush in Texas earlier this month he used the same language to describe Mahmoud Abbas as he once used about Yasser Arafat. The new Palestinian president was a "disappointment", he said. Abbas was unwilling and perhaps unable to "subdue the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure". His "rule" was "collapsing".
Publicly, Bush did not buy the characterisation, preferring to see in Abbas a leader who "wants there to be a Palestinian state that will live in peace beside Israel". Privately, he urged Israel to act to strengthen Abbas and dispatched to envoys in Israel and the occupied territories to ensure compliance. Israel has since said it will reactivate joint committees on prisoners, economic cooperation and Israel's stunted West Bank re-deployment that have lain dormant since the Sharm El-Sheikh summit in February.
Palestinians, too, do not see Abbas as a leader heading for a fall -- at least not yet. But 100 days into his watch there is a sense of growing disappointment. It is a new mood and a far cry from even the mild optimism generated by the presidential elections in January when Abbas was cast as the great white hope of Palestinian nationalism. Nor is the disillusion altogether fair.
Abbas has overseen a remarkably peaceful transition since Arafat's death in November, steering his people through local and presidential elections in the teeth of the occupation and with barely a shot fired. He has delivered on a central part of his political programme. On 17 March in Cairo he not only secured a cross- factional Palestinian commitment to "an atmosphere of calm" for the rest of 2005; he also began the process of integrating Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO.
This is a real plus, says Palestinian analyst George Giacaman. "The Intifada splintered Palestinian decision-making. Cairo has re-unified it. It has also given renewed legitimacy to the Palestinian political system. This has to go down as an achievement for Abu Mazen."
But it is not enough, says Mandour Nofal, another Palestinian analyst. "People are happy about the 'calm'. But they don't see results. And, without results, calm will soon mean nothing".
There are three areas where the absence of results is tangible. One is reform, particularly over the dissolute Palestinian Authority police forces. Three months since the presidential elections -- and two since the creation of a new government -- there are still no practical moves to unify the several PA security forces into three under the overall command of new Interior Minister and Abbas loyalist, Nasser Yusuf.
Instead there is obstruction, led by elements on Fatah's Central Committee (FCC), executed by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMBs) in their pay and passively supported by large swathes of the PA bureaucracy, including several security chiefs -- all of whom have an interest in seeing reform fail. On the street obstruction manifests itself as lawlessness, as various AMBs storm restaurants and PA buildings in the name of "rights" but always with impunity. "It is a sign of the situation," shrugs Nofal. "It shows that the militias and their backers have no fear of Abbas or Yusuf."
The crisis of legitimacy is compounded by the disarray within Fatah, fractured between a FCC that refuses to give up its prerogatives of leadership and middle cadre "young guard" which simply refuses to recognise it. The result is stasis, with Fatah now less a coherent movement than a "series of groups" unable to agree on policy, positions or even lists for the upcoming local and parliamentary elections. Abbas hovers above the two sides like a pendulum.
"Abu Mazen is caught between two fires," says one PA official. "Given his commitment to reform, he cannot reject opposition within Fatah to officials widely seen as corrupt. But neither can he risk the political instability caused by an irreparable split within Fatah. So he is trying to act as a bridge between the sides. He is simultaneously head of the old guard in body and the head of the young in spirit. But sooner or later he is going to have to choose."
Most critically, Abbas is facing the same Sharonian attrition as he faced when prime minister. Two months after Sharm El-Sheikh, Israel has redeployed from two (out of five) West Bank cities and released 500 (out of 7,500) prisoners. It has frozen all other commitments. It has resumed the assassination and arrest of Palestinian fugitives in the West Bank, bringing the calm to the "verge of collapse", warn Hamas spokesmen. Finally -- through its policies of passes, land confiscation, and wall and settlement construction -- Israel is "consolidating its rule over [Palestinian] East Jerusalem in a way that no other government dared do in the past," says Israeli lawyer and Jerusalem expert, Daniel Seiderman.
Against this mix of assault and neglect Abbas is seen as powerless by his people and deficient by way of strategy. On the one hand -- given the reach of Sharon's colonial ambition -- he knows he must confront Israel as soon as possible on the strategic issues of Jerusalem, settlements and the wall. On the other to wage any kind of struggle that can be effective he needs the world to intervene from abroad and reform to take hold at home. But the world is not there, reform is not happening and even the calm is unraveling. And without a cease-fire, reform and negotiations, Abbas has nothing in his pockets except his hands.
Last month Abbas warned his Fatah movement that if his decrees were continually flouted he would resign. Few took the threat lightly. Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has the reputation of being a quitter. And if the next 100 days are similar to the last, every Palestinian is aware that the threat could become fact.