Ramallah, West Bank
The Palestinian parliamentary elections next week were expected to be a source of pride for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: the first competitive Palestinian election that was to become the foundation for building democratic norms in the West Bank and Gaza.
Instead, Abbas finds he is unable to exercise any authority, unable to command respect and on the verge of losing control of the Palestinian Authority he heads while anarchy reigns in the Gaza Strip, punctuated by a series of kidnappings of foreigners.
"The man is very much disgusted," said Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in this West Bank city. "He is very angry. He is helpless. He is really tired. And he has no friends anymore. In the power equation that surrounds him, Mahmoud Abbas doesnít really enjoy much power."
Gangs of gunmen from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of Abbas’ Fatah party, have threatened to disrupt next Wednesday’s voting in districts of Gaza to protest the alleged blackballing of Fatah gunmen.
"Fatah is profoundly changing," Ezbidi said. "It’s changing in a way which, I’m sorry to say, Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t fit anywhere."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia embarrassed Abbas by arguing for a postponement of the election even though Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has put the weight of his office behind holding the vote on time.
Abbas reportedly has threatened to step down if he cannot carry out his agenda.
Complicating matters is the Islamic movement Hamas, labeled a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. Abbas invited the group to participate in the election in the hope of co-opting it, but Palestinians fed up with what they view as a corrupt and inept Fatah are now poised to give Hamas either a win in the election or a strong second place.
And the international support and financial aid Abbas enjoyed after he was overwhelmingly elected a year ago to succeed Yasir Arafat is on the verge of disappearing.
Just this week, the European Union announced that it was suspending $42 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority (half of its contribution) because the PA lacks budgetary discipline. The EU was slated to contribute $312 million this year. This follows a 60 percent cut in aid by the World Bank.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s commissioner for external relations, said in Jerusalem Tuesday that not only have the Palestinians not appointed a replacement for Salam Fayyad, who quit as Palestinian finance minister in November to run for parliament, but the PA must have a budget that governs spending.
Nigel Roberts, the World Bank representative in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this month as saying that the PA raised salaries "at a time when resources are unavailable."
As a result, Roberts said, the PA is "on the verge of functional bankruptcy" and will be unable as early as next month to pay the salaries of at least 130,000 officials and members of its security forces.
The withdrawal of further international aid is also threatened by both the United States and European Union should Wednesday’s election result in Hamas becoming part of the Palestinian government and the organization refuses to disarm and recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state.
The withdrawal of U.S. aid would include $50 million in help with housing and infrastructure development in the Gaza Strip.
A Hamas leader was quoted by Haaretz for the first time Wednesday as saying the organization planned to participate in the Palestinian government, so that it "will not be the Abu Mazen government but the parliamentary government."
Thus it appears that Abbas’ stature is as weak as ever, raising questions about whether he will be able to accept this week’s offer of Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to meet with him for peace talks should Olmert’s Kadima Party win the Israeli election March 28.
As Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria wrote, "The big story no one wants to admit yet is that the Palestinian Authority has collapsed, Gaza has turned into a failed state and there is no single Palestinian political organization that could create order in the territories and negotiate with Israel. Palestinian dysfunction is now the main limiting factor on any progress in the peace process."
Even before the election, the evidence of Abbas’ fading star is hard to miss. A glance at the jumble of election posters in Ramallah’s El-Manarah Square tells it all. In one corner is a giant billboard showing a smiling portrait of Arafat; opposite is a banner showing the jailed militant Marwan Barghouti raising his shackled hands. Head shots of assassinated Hamas leaders Abdel Azziz Rantisi and Sheik Ahmen Yassin adorn Hamas banners with green crescents. A picture of Abbas is nowhere to be found. PA officials insist there is a good explanation: The election law prohibits the president from taking part in campaign propaganda. But others say Abbas’ low profile stems from the fear that he could be seen as a liability as Fatah tries to fend off the challenge from Hamas.
To be sure, even though Abbas is not up for re-election, the results will represent an indirect referendum on his tenure in office.
According to a Bir Zeit University survey last week, the race has been tightening, with Fatah winning 35 percent approval to 31 percent for Hamas. One of every five respondents was still undecided.
The irony of the election is that a vote that will ultimately weaken Abbas’ grip on power is actually part of his strategy for halting violence against Israel. He believes that by bringing Hamas into the political system (something Arafat failed to do) he will be able to pressure the Islamists to fall into line with his policies.
But the past several months have been marked by unprecedented turmoil in Fatah. And Abbas himself is a man of many paradoxes. He is a diplomat who is expected to confront an array of Palestinian strongmen, an old-generation leader expected to implement reforms, and the symbol of a new political era who already has said he will step down after three years.
"Our current president isn’t seeking to be another Arafat," said Ahmed Soboh, deputy minister of information for the Palestinian Authority and a friend of Abbas. "He isn’t seeking to be a symbolic leader. He’s a normal leader.
"We need presidents to be changed every four years. When we reach that normalcy, that means we’re closer to democracy."
Indeed even at home, Palestinians recognize that the anarchy in the West Bank and Gaza cannot be blamed entirely on Israel. Amid the chaos wrought by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Abbas seems a logical address for the blame.
"His image to Palestinians is somehow not the same as before," said Mohammed Yaghi, a political analyst. "He issued a lot of orders, and talked bluntly before the Palestinians of his program, but many of the security forces didn’t follow his orders."
When Abbas decided to invite Hamas to run in parliamentary elections, few people expected the Islamists to pose a serious challenge to Fatah’s hegemony in the parliament. But with the two parties seemingly neck and neck, Abbas must now confront the possibility that Fatah will lose control. It’s a scenario that would further undermine an already weak president and possibly lead to his resignation, analysts say.
"Hamas will be able to blackmail him all the time," Yaghi said. "That will be a bad position for Abbas."
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent. Stewart Ain is a staff writer.