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Source: International Crisis Group (ICG)
24 May 2005


Mr Abbas goes to Washington - Can he still succeed?
Middle East Briefing N°17

OVERVIEW

As he visits Washington six months after his appointment as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and more than 100 days after his election as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is in a difficult position. He has institutional and popular legitimacy for his agenda, but remains in crucial respects a leader who is finding it hard to rule. Making demands upon him is legitimate, as Israel has justified security concerns. But these should be matched by actions that empower him, including, where necessary making no less legitimate demands upon Israel.

Enjoying international support Yasir Arafat could only dream of at the end of his rule, Abbas has been no more successful than Arafat in changing Israeli policies or fundamentally altering the U.S. approach. Domestically, he has a deserved reputation as a reformer committed to the institutional reconstruction of the Palestinian polity. While change has occurred, it has been slow and haphazard, as a result of resistance from within the dominant Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) rather than of defiance by the opposition. Not less importantly, some of Abbas's most noteworthy achievements -- including a significant reduction in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities and the gradual incorporation of the Islamist Resistance Movement (Hamas) into the political system -- are being threatened by the stalemate in relations with Israel, differing views of the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire, and the prospect of delayed parliamentary elections.

Before his election, Crisis Group argued Abbas would have to earn legitimacy from the Palestinian people and sustain his mandate with results. He has made real progress on the former but his legitimacy is undermined by shortcomings on the latter. Without change on the ground and tangible diplomatic progress, his difficulties will grow exponentially.

The Palestinian leader's 26 May 2005 visit to the White House, legislative elections later in the year, and Israel's scheduled disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank are critical milestones. If he emerges without convincing commitments from the first, Fatah fares poorly in the second, and Israel's withdrawal is less than complete or serves to forestall meaningful political progress, his authority will be much undermined. A repeat of his 2003 premiership, in which Israeli intransigence, U.S. neglect, and international passivity empowered Palestinian rivals to frustrate him, would be in prospect.

While circumstances in 2005 differ, the challenges confronting Abbas and the Palestinian national movement are essentially unchanged:

- Improving daily life. Reversal of the economic crisis and restoration of law and order are immediate priorities. The Palestinian consensus is that results have been slow at best. Personal security has improved only marginally amid growing unrest by the poor and unemployed. Unless the PA can rapidly translate institutional reforms in the security and financial realms into achievements on the ground, frustrated expectations will produce further disaffection. President Bush, who in January pledged $200 million to the PA, should use Abbas's visit to announce that he seeks repeal of Congressional restrictions that would divert more than a quarter of this to Israel and deprive the PA of direct access to the rest.

- Putting the Palestinian house in order. Virtually unanimously Palestinians recognise the political system bequeathed by Arafat needs to be fundamentally transformed if it is to survive his death. Institution-building, genuine power-sharing, and the rule of law must also be given priority. Abbas gets high marks for managing an orderly transition and integrating Hamas into the political system, but so far the leadership has been unable to stem growing disarray within Fatah and associated rivalries within the PA.

The legislative elections, scheduled for 17 July 2005, form the lynchpin of this entire process. While Abbas is personally committed to that date, he faces increasing pressure from within Fatah, Arab states, and the international community for delay in order to stem the Islamists' electoral momentum and use the time to produce more visible progress. But delay would tarnish Abbas's reputation as a man of his word, while Hamas has warned that this could lead it to revisit its commitments. Abbas should not be pressured -- particularly by Washington -- to postpone the elections unilaterally or renege on the understandings he has forged with Hamas.

- Delivering on Israel's commitments. On the basis of parallel understandings reached with Israel at the 8 February 2005 Sharm al-Shaikh Summit, and separately with Palestinian political organisations in Gaza and Cairo, Abbas achieved a relative halt to the grinding confrontation with Israel and commitments for an end to the Israeli siege of Palestinian population centres. Glacial implementation, however, endangers these understandings. That Israel has withdrawn from only two cities, released few prisoners, and maintains most checkpoints undercuts Abbas's claim that engagement can achieve more than confrontation. For its part, Israel claims the PA falls short on curbing militant groups. Bridging the gap in the parties' perceptions, monitoring their actions and pressing on performance requires a more active U.S. role than the envoy, General Ward, has been granted.

- Freezing settlements. As Israel's withdrawal from Gaza nears, Abbas looks for more than U.S. words to arrest continuing settlement construction in the West Bank, especially surrounding Jerusalem.

Abbas does not need to produce a comprehensive peace immediately but does need to demonstrate that Israel's disengagement amounts to permanent withdrawal, not tactical redeployment; that this will activate the Roadmap rather than replace it; and that the Roadmap will result in a peace settlement that meets minimum Palestinian demands within an acceptable timeframe, not a long-term interim agreement suited to Prime Minister Sharon's objectives. The signals from the White House will help Palestinians decide whether Abbas's agenda deserves continued support. Formal assurances and credible commitments to a process -- what it will achieve, and when -- are critical to bolster him.

Full report (pdf* format - 423 KB)


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