Perspective: Without Abbas, Mideast peace effort falters

Perspective: Without Abbas, Mideast peace effort falters

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TEL AVIV, Israel - The resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - if it stands - leaves the Palestinians in a fix: how to find a successor who will be seen as neither a toady of Yasser Arafat nor a tool of the Israelis and Americans?

The list of candidates who might strike such a balance is short - one possibility is parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia - and the need to resolve the crisis is urgent. In a vacuum, Palestinian militants might step up attacks, and Israel could take dramatic measures such as the expulsion of Arafat.

The developments bode ill for the "road map" peace plan championed by President Bush and accepted, at least in principle, by both Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon. The plan calls for an end to three years of bloodshed and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

Abbas' four months in office served as sobering illustration of the challenges any successor would face in bringing that about.

He was buffeted mercilessly by stronger forces, including an entrenched and embittered Arafat, Israeli leaders who gave him little to show his people, and Palestinian militants who paid little heed to his calls for ending violence.

In part, however, Abbas' own nature compounded the already tough situation. Widely seen as a bureaucrat detached from the field, hamstrung by lack of guerrilla pedigree, and impatient with political trench warfare, Abbas failed to rally the masses around his vision of peaceful negotiations.

Abbas, who spent decades in Arafat's shadow as No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization, handed the Palestinian leader his resignation Saturday after days of wrangling over his demand that Arafat grant Abbas full control over the Palestinian security forces - and, implicitly, a stronger hand against militants.

At the end of a day marked by confusion about whether Arafat had formally accepted the resignation, there was uncertainty about whether Abbas would really go. Some thought the move was tactical, and suggested that Abbas might return as head of a new government.

Palestinian legislators said Arafat told them Abbas was now heading a caretaker government, implying the veteran Palestinian leader had accepted the resignation. However, officials such as Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said that acceptance would only become official once Arafat has sent a letter to Abbas.

Abbas' departure would eliminate a pillar of the current peace effort, which rested on replacing Arafat - accused by Israel and the United States of fomenting terrorism.

Israel has made it clear that it would not deal with a new leadership hand-picked by Arafat, but Abbas' apparent failure underscores how difficult it still is for a would-be Palestinian leader to operate without Arafat's sincere and full support.

In a statement Saturday, Abbas only alluded to his dispute with Arafat, saying "the fundamental problem is Israel's unwillingness to implement its road map commitments and to undertake any constructive measures."

Neither side did much to abide by its road map commitments.

Abbas' approach to the main Palestinian undertaking - "dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" - was to try to persuade the militant groups to end attacks and voluntarily disarm.

The militant groups did resolve in June to suspend attacks for three months in exchange for a sort of amnesty. But some attacks continued, and Israel said the militants were merely regrouping. It kept up arrest sweeps - some ending in killings of wanted men - and the truce formally fell apart in August after a devastating suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem that killed 22 Israelis, including six children.

Israel, too, ignored key road map clauses, failing to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle scores of settlement outposts established in the past two years. Israel also remains in control of most of the Palestinian cities and autonomous zones it reoccupied during the fighting.

Abbas also asked in vain for Israeli measures that would prove to Palestinians that his policies were yielding fruit - in particular, the removal of dozens of roadblocks that Israel placed in the areas, aiming to stop militants but making life a misery for millions. Israel's release of several hundred detained militants in July was meant as a goodwill gesture; it backfired by humiliating Abbas, who had asked that thousands be freed.

With the situation reverting to the familiar cycle of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military strikes, Abbas rapidly lost what street credibility he had. When he appeared before parliament this month, masked men rioted in the building and protesters called him a traitor.

In Israel, hardline Cabinet ministers wasted little time in renewing calls for Arafat's expulsion - an idea rejected in the past but that Israeli leaders might seriously consider now.

If the resignation is not reversed, the leading candidate to replace Abbas appears to be Qureia, who is also seen as a moderate and has credibility with Israel because he was an architect of the 1990s peace accords.

Like Abbas, he has little independent support in the Palestinian street. But as parliament speaker since 1996, Qureia is a more effective political operator, and he is seen as having better relations than Abbas with Arafat - something which might hurt him with Israel but help him with public opinion.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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