Mahmoud Abbas: the man who would be peacemaker
By Craig Nelson
Your boss is Yasser Arafat, who tries to undercut you at every turn. The President of the United States is pressing you to stop Islamic militant groups from carrying out suicide bombings. The man sitting across from you at the negotiating table - the hawkish, settlement-building Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon - represents everything you have fought against during your career.
Compounding your difficulties is the fact that you are not elected.
Furthermore, you are perceived by most of your constituents as a stooge of the US, and you control only a fraction of the security forces that you need to stop the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from committing terrorist acts.
Amazingly, Mahmoud Abbas - better known as Abu Mazen - hasn't quit his job as the first Palestinian Prime Minister. This despite the fact that when he recently met Sharon for the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in nearly three years, Islamic militants marked the occasion with a wave of five suicide bombings that killed 12 Israelis and wounded scores of others.
He met with the Israeli leader again on Thursday evening to prepare for next week's summit with US President George Bush in Jordan.
Despite some formidable obstacles and a brief tenure in office already stained by blood, vicious inter-office politics and recycled rumours that he is a Holocaust-denier, as well as a follower of the Bahai faith and not a Muslim, the 67-year-old Abbas is making headway.
In an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, published on Thursday, Abbas predicted he would reach a ceasefire agreement next week with Hamas, the largest Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip. He is yet to meet with members of Islamic Jihad and another militant group, Tanzim. Despite clear signs that Israel is ambivalent about the road map, Abbas has accentuated the positive and refused to criticise the Israeli Prime Minister publicly.
"I don't want to judge Sharon by what he says or by what's said about him. I know him inside and out. I'll believe him only when he implements the road map. The implementation is the only test as far as I'm concerned," he told the Israeli daily Haaretz this week.
While US involvement in the peace process will ease the friction between Abbas and the Israeli leader, it can do little to smooth his relations with Arafat, who appointed him Prime Minister last month under pressure from Washington.
The pair have known each other for nearly 40 years, since co-founding the Fatah movement in 1965, and the quintessential grey suit of Palestinian politics has always operated in the shadow of the charismatic Palestinian president and guerilla leader. Among Palestinians there is no question who is more popular.
A recent poll by the independent Palestine Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed Arafat with a 35 per cent approval rating, compared to 3 per cent for Abbas.
Arafat appears to miss no opportunity to put Abbas in his place. In Jerusalem this week, reports persisted that Arafat had forced the postponement of a second summit with Sharon after throwing a tantrum and reminding Palestinian officials in the room, including Abbas, of who was in charge.
Still, Abbas refuses to publicly criticise Arafat, whom Israel and the US now refuse to meet, saying he is ultimately responsible for attacks by militants.
"Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and should not be isolated," Abbas said. "I reject, both morally and politically, all the pressure on countries and persons not to meet with him."
Although Abbas has considerable negotiating skills - he was the chief Palestinian negotiator for the Oslo agreement reached in 1993 - he has little time to win concessions.
With so little support among the 3.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he is unlikely to survive in office for very long if he cannot substantially improve their lives and show the road map pays.
©Copyright 2003, The Age (Australia)
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