TEL AVIV — Delivering his first-ever election speech last week, the leading candidate to replace Yasser Arafat as chairman of the Palestinian Authority sounded very much like his predecessor. Speaking before a crowd in Ramallah, the authority’s former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, promised Palestinians that he will “fulfill their dream of an independent state.” Though reiterating his determination to achieve this by means of negotiations rather than by armed struggle, Abbas left little room for concessions: “Israel must withdraw from all territories taken in the 1967 war,” he demanded. “The occupation must end.”
Abbas is the hands-down favorite to win the January 9 election, announced after the death of Arafat last November. He runs as the candidate of the Fatah movement, Arafat’s party and the most powerful political body among Palestinians.
And yet, Abbas’s speech — indeed, his entire candidacy — has met with little response from Israeli officialdom. In private, most Israeli officials view Abbas as a moderate whose rise to power could open a new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations. At the same time, none expect him to give up easily on core demands, particularly while he is working to establish his legitimacy among his people. Complicating things, Israeli officials from Prime Minister Sharon on down are wary of seeming too enthusiastic about him, lest they taint him in his voters’ eyes as a secret Israeli lackey.
Polls taken last week showed Abbas’s commanding lead. He enjoys 42.5% support, while his nearest rival, physician and human-rights activist Mustafa Barghouti, registers only 10%.
This is a far cry from where Abbas stood while Arafat was still alive. Before Arafat’s death, Abbas was at the bottom of most polls, well behind leading figures in the Islamic militant Hamas movement, trailing current Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and, most importantly, behind the jailed leader of Fatah’s West Bank organization, Marwan Barghouti (a cousin of the physician-candidate).
Marwan Barghouti’s decision not to run, announced last week from his Israeli prison cell, all but sealed Abbas’s impending victory. A poll taken shortly before Barghouti’s announcement by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed him running neck to neck with Abbas (40% for Abbas, 38% for Barghouti).
Abbas was quick to show his gratitude for Barghouti’s withdrawal. In that same maiden speech, he said that peace with Israel is dependent on the release of all prisoners, first and foremost Barghouti. When Israel responded by releasing 159 prisoners — none of them with “blood on their hands,” as convicted terrorists are known — Abbas expressed public disappointment.
Sharon has taken a hands-off approach toward the Palestinian elections, time and again referring to them as an internal Palestinian matter. There are several considerations behind Sharon’s reticence. After being accused repeatedly of doing too little to help Abbas during his short, failed term as prime minister in 2003, Israel doesn’t want to be seen as undermining him now by hugging him too closely.
Despite their favorable assessment of Abbas, some Israeli officials privately admit they were taken aback by his initial campaign speech. He wasn’t merely playing to the bleachers, they warn, but voicing his movement’s traditional, hard-line stand. And, they say, Israel’s options for responding are limited. Now that Arafat is gone, removing what Israelis continually called the main obstacle to resuming negotiations, they will have to face Abbas. And Abbas, they say, might garner much more sympathy for the Palestinian cause while standing just as firm on the issues of land, Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, visiting the region last week, took pains to meet with Abbas, demonstrating just how different from Arafat he is in the eyes of world leaders.
For Abbas himself, winning the election might be the least of his internal worries. On December 26, just weeks before the balloting, separate voting was held in 26 municipal authorities in the West Bank, and it turned into an unexpected show of force by Hamas. It was the first time the extremist Islamist movement had taken part in any electoral process under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority — an entity it officially refuses to recognize, because it was established as part of the Oslo agreements between the Palestinians and the Jewish state. Hamas won in seven authorities, Fatah in 12. In the remaining seven there was no clear victor.
Hamas doesn’t have a candidate in the election for Palestinian Authority chairman, but is expected to participate in the parliamentary elections that are provisionally scheduled for May 2005. In fact, spokesmen for Hamas last week publicly urged Abbas, should he be elected, to fulfill his promise to hold such elections.
According to the survey by the Ramallah research center, Hamas enjoys the support of 18% of Palestinians, against 40% for Fatah. Should the result of the parliamentary elections be similar, the Islamic movement would, for the first time, wield real political power in determining the way that life is run in the West Bank and Gaza.
Well-placed Israeli intelligence sources say the intelligence establishment expects this process to have a profound effect on Hamas, the main Palestinian opponent of a peace process with Israel and the bloodiest source of terrorism against Israelis. It might, they predict, create a rift between local leaders – such as Sheikh Hassan Yousef, recently released from an Israeli prison, who last week called for a long-term, multigeneration truce or hudna with Israel — and the exiled leaders of the organization, most prominently Khaled Mashal and Mussa Abu Marzuk, who call for a continuation of the armed struggle and the elimination of Israel.
Caught between the demands of its exiles for continued terrorism and furious pressure from Fatah and Egypt to accept a cease-fire, Hamas may decide, intelligence sources say, to accept a limited deal that limits attacks to the territories and ends bombings inside pre-1967 Israel.
It is unclear how such a decision would affect future relations between Israel and an Abbas-led authority. Israel officially dismisses any talk of a Hamas cease-fire, calling it a diversion from the P.A.’s obligation to dismantle all terrorist organizations, but privately Israeli officials say they would accept and even welcome a cease-fire. However, as they make clear, Abbas’s forces will be expected to take responsibility for security in their areas. Accordingly, a partial Hamas cease-fire — resulting in attacks on Israeli troops or settlers in territories still under Israeli control — could trigger a new crisis.
Everything still hangs precariously in the balance. All sides are aware of how fragile the situation is, how a single terrorist attack or a major Israeli operation might bring everything back to the chaotic state of only several months ago. But as the Palestinian opinion survey shows, there is increased optimism among Palestinians. Fully 80% of them support a cease-fire; more surprising, 58% think Ariel Sharon is strong enough to push through a compromise settlement. Electing Abbas on January 9 is, for everyone involved, the first step toward ending the four-year war, and perhaps going back to the negotiating table.