Monday, January 19, 2009
Can Abbas survive after Gaza war?
Mahmoud Abbas's image has been damaged by the Israeli offensive on Gaza [AFP]
Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Middle East Report magazine, talks to Al Jazeera about what Israel's war on Gaza means for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah faction, and what its wider repercussions may be.
Q: If the Israeli bombardment stops, what will be the most prominent political battle for the Palestinians?
The most difficult battle that is going to be waged within the Palestinian political system once this war subsides is going to be Mahmoud Abbas's fight for political survival.
He has been under tremendous pressure and growing widespread criticism all along for the absolute failure of each and every one of his strategies since he assumed the presidency in November 2004.
Does it matter if he is president or somebody else in the same mould as him?
Many Palestinians increasingly say it does matter if he continues as president and that it is increasingly important to replace him with a leader who can, more authentically, represent his people.
It is interesting that in the last 10 years Fatah, the movement which (despite the ascendency of Hamas) is the spinal chord of the Palestinian national movement, has become increasingly bitter and divided.
[Fatah's factions] have united only once in the past 10 years - that was in November 2004 to appoint Mahmoud Abbas as a successor to the late Yasser Afarat.
Since then, they have been at war with each other. The movement is disintegrating.
We now begin to see a situation where these various, competing power centres find it necessary to unite once again.
Will the incoming US administration attempt to identify a person for that role?
No, because that is what they did last time. The appointment of the Palestinian leadership needs to be a Palestinian national decision. Full stop.
My view is that we are seeing an increasingly wide gap between Abbas and his leadership circle on the one hand, and the rank and file of the Fatah movement on the other.
We may see a situation emerging in which Fatah's rival power centres are able to unite once again, this time to jettison Abbas overboard before he takes them down with him in the sinking ship which is his presidency.
If Israel decides to stop its war, will it have done so to prevent Hamas from having the satisfaction of hammering out an international agreement?
That is not exactly what the Israel decision will be.
I have argued all along since this war began that if a key objective of Israel is to delegitimise Hamas, it does not make sense, from an Israeli perspective, to be part of a ceasefire agreement in which Hamas is also a party.
It would be more logical, again looking at this from an Israeli perspective, to make a unilateral statement: We stop the bombing as of today or Monday or whatever; Here are the new rules; if so much as a coke can is thrown over the Israel-Gaza border, we send in an F-16 - there is no ceasefire that restrains us, so if we get intelligence that a particular Hamas leader is in a particular house, since there is no ceasefire, we send in the missiles.
You have, more or less, a situation of open-ended conflict, but the main offensive will have ended. You will have a situation very much like what we have had since 2002 – the big Israeli invasion in the West Bank at the time.
Is Israel making its decision now so it will give more weight to the Saudi-Egypt talks rather than legitimise what happened here in Qatar when Hamas was given centre stage?
It is quite likely that that is part of their calculations.
That Israel may well announce a unilateral cessation of the offensive, as opposed to a unilateral cessation of hostilities, prior to Kuwait's meeting.
That will also, they hope, take the wind out of the sails of the Kuwait meeting which would then be able to argue that the mere threat of convening a "real Arab summit" stopped Israel dead in its tacks and, therefore, there is no real need to take serious decisions at that meeting.
So, in other words, Israel will be providing some ammunition to the so-called axis of moderation and pragmatism.
We are told the "memorandum of understanding" - the deal between the US and Israel - is about stopping arms being smuggled into Gaza. Is there more to this than meets the eye?
Yes. This is George Bush's parting gift to Israel and the US administration that has incinerated four countries in less than a decade: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and now Palestine.
It is giving the US a direct role in Israel's war against Hamas.
The Americans will not even publish the details of this agreement.
Some reports say there is also a Nato role but, basically, preventing the rearmament and resupplying of Hamas is not just an Israeli problem, it is an international problem.