I was at the United Nations two weeks ago when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke at the 60th anniversary of UNRWA, and his performance was thoroughly empty and unimpressive. Abbas is a spent force, lacking both serious legitimacy and perceptible impact. He hangs on to some thin threads of credibility from his long association with Yasser Arafat and the Fatah leadership from the days when they represented a Palestinian national strategy, and mattered, because they had some self-respect. This is no longer the case, sadly.
I was not surprised, therefore, at the news a few days ago that Abbas had succumbed to Israeli and American pressure to defer consideration of a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council on allegations that Israel had committed war crimes in its attack on Gaza last year, as stated in the investigation headed by respected international judge Richard Goldstone.
Here was a rare case of a credible international judge making strong accusations against both Israel and Hamas, and suggesting that their conduct be considered by the UN Security Council. It was an opportunity to bring pressure to bear on Israel through the institutions of the UN, building on the Goldstone report. Abbas caved in to US pressure, though, making it clear that he was more concerned about his relations with Washington than relations with…his own people. The cold-hearted capacity of the PA president to throw away an opportunity to subject Israeli war crimes accusations to serious international scrutiny reveals the almost total and absolute gap between him and his Palestinian people.
Abbas has taken this decision following another equally hollow performance when he met briefly with the American president and the Israeli prime minister in New York. He offered the illusion of action towards a negotiated peace, where in fact there is none. Abbas swallowed his words about refusing to discuss peace-making with Israel until it had frozen its settlement-building program. He was a tragic shell of a man, hollow, politically impotent, backed and respected by nobody.
The total emptiness in the Palestinian presidential chair is a problem that has a solution; in one move Abbas can help rebuild the credibility of the Palestinian presidency while simultaneously strengthening overall Palestinian national unity and political cohesion. He should simply call early elections for the Palestine Authority presidency, not stand as a candidate, and instead devote time to using his other position as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee to achieve a critical need that has been absent from Palestinian life for several decades: build a national consensus by giving voice to all groups of Palestinians and especially to the refugees living in camps throughout the Middle East.
Abbas’ weakness, like Arafat’s before him in the latter’s last decade of life, has been an infatuation with two elements that are addictive but non-productive: the trappings of power, privilege and incumbency, and a direct line to the US president. Both of these are enticing elements, but they lead to a situation of total powerlessness of the Palestinian leadership and equally severe marginalization of the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian presidency has become an international embarrassment. It generates no respect among the four principal constituencies where it should matter: the Palestinian people, the Israeli people and government, the Arab people and governments, and the rest of the world. It is shocking -- unbelievable, in fact -- that Abbas should have been able in the past five years to totally waste away the last bits of credibility and respect that Yasser Arafat had left him.
Forget for a moment the deep split among Palestinians as represented by Fatah and Hamas. There is still a national consensus that all Palestinians agree on, as expressed in the seminal Prisoners’ Document that came out of the agreement a few years ago among leading Palestinian factions who negotiated it during their stay in Israeli jails. Fatah as the largest and oldest Palestinian group, and the PLO as the acknowledged umbrella organization for all Palestinians, still enjoy legitimacy and influence that can be revived, if their leaders decide to act according to national political programs that unite the Palestinians and give them voice and impact -- rather than Abbas’ current policy of isolating the refugees, marginalizing the Palestinians as a whole, weakening any semblance of national leadership, and keeping at zero the prospects of a negotiated agreement that will achieve the Palestinians’ minimum national rights.
Abbas has failed his people, but he can partially redeem himself and set the stage for his successor to play a more effective role. He should act with honor and confidence by stepping down as PA president, calling a new election to bring in a more legitimate and capable leadership, and focus his energy on where he started his days decades ago when he still had credibility and courage -- by reconstituting the PLO as the coordinating body for all Palestinians
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.