Speaking to his people on January 18, hours after Hamas responded to Israel’s unilateral suspension of hostilities with a conditional ceasefire of its own, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniyeh devoted several passages of his prepared text to the subject of Palestinian national reconciliation. For perhaps the first time since Hamas’s June 2007 seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, an Islamist leader broached the topic of healing the Palestinian divide without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas by name.
At a press conference the following day convened by Abu Ubaida, the spokesperson of the Martyr Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing, the movement went one step further. “The Resistance”, Abu Ubaida intoned, “is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.
What these statements make clear is that Hamas will no longer engage with Abbas, and is even less inclined to throw him a lifeline in the form of a national unity government he would appoint. These statements are not so much a direct challenge to his leadership as a confirmation that his legitimacy has been fatally damaged by the Gaza war. Even his hand-picked prime minister, Salam Fayyad, told journalists that the PA in Ramallah has been “marginalised”.
Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip has produced a transformational moment in Palestinian politics. It is a moment all too reminiscent of the period succeeding the 1967 War when the credibility of the prevailing Arab order collapsed and – deriving their legitimacy from the barrel of a gun – Yasser Arafat and a coalition of Palestinian guerrilla organisations seized control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
With the peace process reduced from a means to an end, and statehood transformed into a formula to perpetuate Israeli rule and Palestinian fragmentation, the struggle for Palestinian self-determination appears to be again emerging front and centre. Palestinians no longer seem inclined to choose their leaders on the basis of heroism around the negotiating table, frequency of meetings with world leaders, nor even necessarily electoral performance. The devastation in Gaza has made the inclination to challenge Israel and its occupation and the will to defy international pressure the central criteria for Palestinians. But Abbas will not be a party to this process: instead his ejection from the body politic has become its non-negotiable precondition. Because if there is one message it is “no more business as usual.”
How this process will develop remains to be seen. Hamas may or may not have the will and capacity to replace Fatah’s hegemony with its own, and may or may not have the foresight and wisdom to work with rather than against other Palestinian organisations. It is a process that is certain to see the formal renunciation of the catastrophic Oslo agreements, and perhaps the abolition of the PA as well.
The reasons for Abbas’s demise are few, and they predate the Israeli attack on Gaza: he long ago placed all of his eggs in the Israeli-American basket. Acting as if his chickens had already hatched, his inability to deliver any tangible achievement has instead meant they came home to roost with a vengeance.
Key to this is Abbas’s relationship to his people: simply put, it never existed. Arafat saw the Palestinians as the ace in the deck to be played when all else failed, and understood that his leverage with outside actors derived from their conviction that he represented the Palestinian people. If he consistently failed or refused to properly mobilise this primary resource, he at least always held it in reserve.
Abbas has by contrast been an inveterate elitist, who seems to have regarded the Palestinian population as an obstacle to be overcome so that the game of nations could proceed – there are after all only so many seats at the table where great statesmen like Abbas, George Bush and Ehud Olmert together create the contours of a new Middle East. For Abbas, legitimacy meant the leverage you have with your voters by convincing them you represent others.
Cursed with exceptional self-regard, Abbas has always shown disinterest in the opinions of others. From the moment he convinced himself of the sincerity of Bush’s visions, which put the onus on the Palestinians to prove they qualify for membership in the human race and are worthy of being spoken to by Tsipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice, there was no turning back. Henceforth the Palestinian security forces would point their weapons exclusively at their own people, and only Saeb Erakat would be aimed at Israel. At the United Nations, once a primary arena for the Palestinian struggle, Abbas’s emissary Riad Mansour was too busy drafting a resolution declaring Hamas a terrorist entity to deal with more trivial Palestinian concerns. It was simply impossible to steer Abbas towards a change of course, let alone a national dialogue that could produce a genuine strategy.
By the expiration of his presidency on January 9, his constitutional status had become the least of his problems. Each and every one of his policies had failed. In the West Bank, settlement expansion was proceeding at an unprecedented pace while the Wall neared final completion, rendering talk of a two-state settlement all but moot.
After Hamas triumphed in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Abbas’s ceaseless scheming to remove the Islamists from office and overturn the election’s results – characteristically in active partnership with outside forces rather than the Palestinian electorate – was a veritable carnival of folly and incompetence. When Hamas acted first in 2007, it took the Islamists only several days to dispose of those few forces still prepared to fight for Mohammed Dahlan.
While many are arguing that Abbas is now paying the price for his passivity while Israel slaughtered Palestinians in Gaza, this is only one part of the story. At least as important is the manner in which he has conducted himself since December 27 – comprehensively out of touch with his own people, as if deliberately so, and dealing with the Gaza Strip as if it is a foreign country he has never heard of.
In his initial response Abbas laid responsibility for the conflict at Hamas’s doorstep, in one stroke reducing his role to that of a factional leader opportunistically siding with his cousin against his brother. More to the point, he unleashed the full power of his security forces against his own people. Not to prevent a Hamas coup in the West Bank, or even attacks against Israel, but to suppress pro-Palestinian demonstrations of the kind permitted even within Israel.
He responded to Israel’s launching of a land offensive on January 3 by announcing that he was delaying for one day his visit to the UN Security Council. Not to lead his people, but rather to meet Nicolas Sarkozy. Since then he has barely visited Palestine; on his last sojourn he stayed only long enough to inform the Qataris that he could not attend their emergency meeting to discuss the war.
That last was the mother of all miscalculations. Where Arafat would either have skipped all summits, or alternatively insisted on attending precisely because of pressure to stay away, Abbas produced one lame excuse after another: that the Doha meeting lacked a quorum and was therefore not a formal Arab League meeting (as if anything less is undeserving of his presence); that he couldn’t obtain an Israeli permit; and that he was under too much pressure to attend.
Rebuffing Qatari assurances that no other Palestinians would be invited, he didn’t seem to realise that even an empty Palestinian chair would be a major scandal at home. As it happened, he cleared the way for Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal to speak to the world on behalf of the Palestinian people. If Meshaal has yet to succeed in wearing the cloak of Palestinian national leadership, he has at least irrevocably wrested it from the shoulders of Mahmoud Abbas.
There is no longer anything Abbas can say or do to remain in power. The only relevant question is if he will jump before he is pushed – with the coup de grace almost certain to come from within the Fatah movement or the ranks of the public rather than Islamist circles.
No less importantly, there is now also nothing his sponsors and allies can do to save his skin. Utterly cynical initiatives like that by the Europeans promising aid to a national unity government – which, when formed in 2007, served as a pretext for them to continue to boycott the PA – will achieve nothing. Bribes, threats, even wars or peace conferences can no longer prevent the emergence of a new Palestinian national movement. We do not yet know its shape, nor how it will emerge. At this point the only certainty is that unless it can more authentically represent the will and aspirations of its people – by challenging rather than accommodating the status quo – and thereby make more effective progress toward basic objectives, it will not last long.
Mouin Rabbani is a contributing editor at Middle East Report.