Mahmoud Abbas is now the elected head of the Palestinian movement, but he is far from being its leader.
What is indeed striking, behind all the international hoopla, is how little power he actually possesses. The focus has been mainly on Abbas’s personal views and leadership style, a welcome contrast to those of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
The irony, however, is that while Arafat had tremendous power to pursue a radical program, Abbas has so little leverage in pursuing a somewhat less extreme set of goals.
What is the difference between Arafat and Abbas in terms of their political stances? Abbas is more pragmatic in the sense that he takes the existing balance of forces and the costs of militancy far more seriously than did Arafat. In this sense, Abbas knows that the war launched by Arafat in 2000 has been disastrous for the Palestinians. It is easier for Abbas to envision a cease-fire with Israel and even an ultimate peace agreement.
But even on his own terms, Abbas remains a Palestinian nationalist ideologue. His words and actions show him to be well within the mainstream consensus of the Palestinian nationalist movement, which — even after various formal declarations accepting Israeli statehood — continues to demand Israeli concessions that most Israelis see as threatening Israel’s very future. Particularly troubling are demands for a complete return to the 1967 borders and concessions on the so-called right of return — whether declarative or numerical — that no Israeli government is likely to accept.
Yet the structural factor is even more important in understanding Abbas’s direction. To all appearances, he has little or no power over his own movement, Fatah, which is the dominant force in Palestinian politics. It is no accident that Farouk Kaddoumi, a hard-liner who openly rejects Israel’s existence, opposed the Oslo peace process and refuses to return to the territories, succeeded Arafat as chairman of the organization’s executive committee. Abbas has no charisma, no organized base of support and little real backing among the group’s leadership. If he does represent a new way of thinking, there is little evidence that he will be able to bring his colleagues along.
There is probably a consensus among Palestinians to say they will stop incitement, accept a cease-fire and negotiate for a smooth turnover of Gaza, but there are important reasons to doubt that they can or will implement such promises.
As for incitement, for example, it is true that right now there are no longer — for how long? — programs urging Palestinians to kill Israelis and encouraging young people to become martyrs. But there continue to be many messages declaring Israel an illegitimate state that the Palestinians will destroy in the future. After one moderate sermon — in which the cleric read from a script in Abbas’s presence — the texts have gone back to the extremist ones, including anti-American incitement.
Regarding a cease-fire and a halt to terrorism, Abbas’s statements calling for an end to violence, though widely reported in the West, do not appear in the Palestinian media that he controls. Both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Arafat Brigades, an extension of his own Fatah group, say they will continue terrorism. Abbas has said he will not use violence to make them stop. What will he do if they ignore his commands?
The same type of problem applies in Gaza. Abbas might negotiate a deal with Israel for a handover, but will he be able to govern afterward? If Hamas and other extremist groups take over whole sections, will he confront them? Will he use force to stop cross-border attacks? Does anybody seriously think he will act to stop arms smuggling from Egypt?
There will have to be some movement on these three issues — incitement, terrorism, Gaza security — before there is any likelihood of serious, comprehensive negotiations.
Unfortunately, what is most likely to happen is that Abbas will be a moderate front man for the hard-liners in Fatah. He will say the right things and then demand Western help and Israeli concessions.
This does not mean the situation will not improve. A lower level of violence will benefit everyone. A turnover of Gaza would give the Palestinians a chance to show their intentions, for better or worse. But this would constitute a return to the better days of the 1990s more than any dramatic progress toward a comprehensive peace.
At the same time, the election should not obscure the fact that the Palestinian movement is in serious trouble. The splits can be papered over, but only as long as policy and ideology remain unchanged. In other words, as long as Abbas does little or nothing, Hamas, the al-Aqsa Brigades, the security forces and the Fatah hierarchy will do whatever they want while insisting they support his leadership. Yet if he does not make big changes, how will Palestinians, or Israelis for that matter, be much better off?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. He is the co-author of “Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography” (Oxford University Press, 2003) and “Hating America: A History” (Oxford University Press, 2004).