Can moderate Abbas weather Hamas's rise?

The Palestinian leader may resign if next week's vote gives militants upper hand.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A kaleidoscope of campaign banners that is a who's who of Palestinian politics floats above traffic-choked el-Manara Square. Yasser Arafat smiles against the background of Jerusalem. Jailed militant leader Marwan Barghouti waves his shackled hands in defiance of Israel.

Nowhere is the portrait of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

With only days to go before the Jan. 25 vote for parliament, and his Fatah Party dangerously close to losing to the Islamic militants of Hamas, the Palestinian moderate has taken a low profile in an election that many see as a referendum on his tenure.

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Aides say election laws forbid the president, not up for reelection, from campaigning, but observers suggest Mr. Abbas is a liability because he has disappointed many Palestinians.

"He represents an image that can be harmful to the campaign," says Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Ramallah's Birzeit University. "On a popular level, people do not see him really as someone whom they can trust to deliver because they've given him a full year to deliver and he didn't. There's an ironic thing: here the Palestinian public and the Israeli government meet."

Indeed, a Hamas victory could turn Abbas, who has said he'll only serve one term, into a lame duck unable to lead the Palestinians back into peace talks.

In another sign that pressure may be ratcheting up on Abbas, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated an explosive in south Tel Aviv Thursday afternoon, wounding 14. It was the first attack since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke in December and will test the response of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's caretaker government.

Last January Abbas was coronated Yasser Arafat's successor with a 62 percent electoral mandate, buoying hopes for a resumption of peace talks with Israel and promising to rein in Palestinian gunmen. But he achieved neither.

Within the disintegrating political party bequeathed to him by Mr. Arafat, Abbas's authority is being questioned. Even one of his few achievements, an agreement among Palestinian militants to suspend attacks on Israelis, has proven rickety. Now, a poor showing for Fatah would be akin to a sitting US president losing control of the House or Senate during a midterm election.

"[Abbas] will be in bad shape if Fatah gets less than what is expected, or loses the majority," says Mohammed Yaghi, a columnist for the Al-Ayyam newspaper. "Hamas will haggle with him on everything."

The president backed next week's election in hopes that with Hamas as a part of the Palestinian parliament, he could exert more leverage over the Islamist militants. But the price of that strategy could weaken the president's party's grip on power. That has stirred dissension in the ranks of Fatah.

"Many are skeptical that he is really for Fatah,'' says Mr. Yaghi. "Many are saying that he doesn't care, that he only has a [diplomatic] program, and that is his main concern."

Gangs from Fatah's military wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, have threatened to disrupt voting to protest that their patrons who are not on the ballot. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia embarrassed the president earlier this month by suggesting the vote be delayed. The implosion of Fatah is one of the main reasons why Hamas is poised to do better than anyone imagined just a few months ago.

The parliamentary vote is just one of the many paradoxes of the tenure of Abbas, a diplomat expected to confront an array of Palestinian strongmen and a figure of the old establishment promising reform.

As the campaign reaches its final days, the race appears to be tightening. According to a Birzeit University survey last week, Fatah's popularity stands at 35 percent while Hamas's has surged to 31 percent.

The pressure on Abbas is starting to show. He is seldom pictured smiling in Palestinian newspapers. And recently it was reported that Abbas, or Abu Mazen as he is nicknamed, said he would step down if he cannot carry out his agenda.

"Mahmoud Abbas is very human," says Ahmed Soboh, the deputy minister of information in the Palestinian Authority. "He is the only Palestinian who doesn't like to be president. He wants to serve but he doesn't insist on being number one, which is a not a quality typical of a politician."

Abbas's style has proven to be the antithesis to that of Arafat. He is aloof rather than a populist and a proponent of nonviolence rather than militancy. That's partly why the veteran peace negotiator was embraced by Israel and the international community. But his failure to establish law and order in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip has been a letdown for Palestinians, the international community, and Israel.

"His biggest fault is that he has not taken effective control of the security forces. It was part of his ideology of not confronting militants," says Gershon Baskin, cochair of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. "Palestinians feel that there's a total breakdown of law and order, and that Abbas never asserted his control."

But there is sympathy in the streets of Ramallah, where Abbas is still perceived as an honest politician. "You can tell he is a good person and he gave it his best shot," says Nasser Ibrahim, a lifelong Fatah supporter - until this election. "[Fatah is] not worthy of our vote."

Abbas's colleagues in Fatah aren't likely to be forgiving if the party performs poorly. Indeed, the election could enhance Abbas's reputation as a weak leader, Ezbidi says. "Such an image will continue to exist for sometime," he says. "I do not see Mahmoud Abbas part of the political scene eight months from now. I see him disappearing somehow and resigning."

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