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June 26, 2008

Mahmoud Abbas' Time Has Passed


by John Taylor

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is a collaborator with the his peoples' chief tormentors, Israel and the United States. Without Israeli and American support, Abbas would be gone in an instant. The general commanding Israeli forces on the West Bank, Gadi Shamni, put it best: "He's a joke, a nothing. We are the only force propping him up. Should we withdraw from the cities, Hamas will sweep him and his men away as they did in Gaza."

To be fair, Abbas' predecessor as president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat, Mr. Palestine himself, made huge mistakes dealing with the Israelis, perhaps the result of his addiction to the trappings of power and statehood. Arafat loved to jet around the world, meet kings and presidents, and pretend to govern Palestine, which he had in no way liberated from Israeli occupation. Not only did Arafat indemnify the Israelis in the Oslo Accords for everything they had done in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since the 1967 war, he became the first leader of a national liberation movement to sign an agreement with an occupier to keep its occupation in place. What Arafat received from Israel was authority over a few non-contiguous strips of land, but no control over borders, air space, water resources, or Israeli settlements already dotting the occupied territories.

Mahmoud Abbas went Arafat one better: he tried to stamp out Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation. Abbas demanded "an end to all military action, full calm, a full end to violence." Thus Abbas called on the Palestinians to cease doing what is legal under international law, resisting an occupation, and accept what is illegal under national law, the colonizing of an occupied territory by the occupying power. Settling the West Bank is so much easier when the natives don't fight back. No wonder Abbas is beloved in Washington and Tel Aviv!

Just what have Abbas and his cronies brought the Palestinians? Over the last few years the Palestinian economy shrunk by over a third and the number of Palestinians living below the poverty line rose from 20 to 40 percent. The number of Israeli settlements on the West Bank now total 160, and their inhabitants have increased from 150,000 to 250,000. Palestinian East Jerusalem, the center of Palestinian intellectual, social, and political life, has been cut off by Israeli settlements from the West Bank. Worst of all, Israeli settlements, military zones, Israeli-only roads, and the Separation Wall have reduced land available for a Palestinian state by about 50 percent. And yet at the summons of George Bush, Abbas dutifully turned up last November at the sham Annapolis peace conference, right after the Israelis announced a major expansion of the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem.

For Abbas to rely on the most pro-Israel administration in U.S. history, and that is saying a lot, to bring justice to the Palestinians, is absurd in the extreme. Condi Rice may claim the shape of an Israeli/Palestinian peace is "to be settled in direct talks between the parties," but the reality is quite different. Not only has the Bush administration done nothing to restrain Israeli colonization of the occupied territories, it has publicly accepted the de facto annexation of large portions of the West Bank: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."

Mahmoud Abbas may have been able to delude himself into thinking that the so-called Road Map to Peace, pushed hard by the Bush administration, was something other than a final surrender of the Palestinian patrimony to a relentless and wel-funded Israeli plan to take over all of Palestine, but his people were not fooled. In January 2006 Abbas' Fatah Party was badly defeated in elections for the Palestine Legislative Council, winning only 45 seats to Hamas' 74.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Islamists of Hamas won the election because they were honest and able to provide welfare services that the Fatah Party had neglected. A more accurate conclusion would be that the Palestinians supported Hamas because Abbas has been unable to stop Israeli settlement growth and the destruction of the Palestinian economy. How could Abbas be expected to wring a viable Palestinian state from the Israelis if he was unable to convince them to remove any of the 400 roadblocks strangling economic and community life on the West Bank?

For the United States, Hamas' overwhelming election victory was anathema. Hamas is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and remains an advocate of armed resistance to the occupation. Further, Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and rejects all the damaging agreements that Arafat and Abbas signed that have corralled the Palestinians into the desperate situation in which they now find themselves.

In the wake of the Hamas victory, the pliable Abbas embraced Israeli and American policy ever more tightly in a desperate effort to cling to power. First, Abbas acquiesced to the Israeli seizure of the customs revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinians and refused to share critical cabinet positions with Hamas. Second, Abbas was a party to the planning with Israel's longtime advocate on the U.S. National Security Council, Elliott Abrams, of a coup against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Unfortunately for Abbas and Abrams, the coup, which was to employ Fatah security forces in Gaza loyal to Mohammed Dahlan, was the worst-kept secret and the most ill-conceived plot in recent diplomatic history. In June 2007 Hamas struck first and quickly disposed of Abbas' supporters in Gaza.

After Hamas' takeover of Gaza, the Israelis, with the approval of Abbas, began to arrest Hamas legislators on the West Bank, ultimately jailing 45 of them. Abbas, now utterly without a legitimate mandate of any sort, appointed a new cabinet and began to rule by decree. Meanwhile, the Israeli army tightened its control of West Bank cities to keep Abbas' supporters in power and started to detain Hamas activists.

In Gaza itself conditions went from bad to desperate. The Israeli government severely restricted supplies, with the exception of limited amounts of food and fuel. As Israeli official Dov Weisglass heartlessly put it, "It's like a meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death." For lack of raw materials all industry in the Strip collapsed, unemployment soared, and everyday life became a struggle. But while 1.5 million Palestinians were on the brink of starvation in Gaza, Abbas continued to talk with Israel and the United States about the so-called peace process.

Despite having to cope with the collective punishment of a million and a half residents of Gaza, Hamas has been able to move forward with its political objectives. Gaza security forces were entirely rebuilt with emphasis on loyalty to the Hamas political leadership. With the United States doing its utmost to deprive Gaza of financial aid from the West, assistance from the Gulf region and Iran went directly to the Hamas leadership and served to strengthen the party's political control. And resistance to Israel continued, albeit in a rather desultory manner in which crude rockets were fired at Israeli towns close to Gaza. Damage in Israel was limited, and Gazans suffered perhaps 50 casualties for every one inflicted on the Israelis.

And now, a severe body blow for Abbas and his rump regime: de facto Israeli recognition of Hamas as Israel and Hamas agree to a cease-fire without preconditions. In return for an end to the firing of rockets, Israel promises to increase the range and quantity of goods allowed into Gaza.

Whether the cease-fire will hold and the economy of Gaza will revive is uncertain, but the Israelis apparently decided trying to starve Hamas out of power was not going to work. So Mahmoud Abbas' policy of shunning the rejectionists of Hamas, dictated by the United States and Israel, has been undercut by the Israelis themselves, undoubtedly hastening the day Abbas ceases to be president of the Palestinian Authority and becomes a resident of one of the little Arab towns the Israelis maintain for the protection of Palestinian collaborators whose usefulness is at an end.

 

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John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern Languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.

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