Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Abbas - between a rock and hard place

Abu Mazen - between a rock and a hard place

pv vivekanand
MAHMOUD Abbas is with Fatah or Hamas? Ironically, this is the question that many Fatah supporters seem to be asking in the ongoing debate over whether the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for July 17 should be postponed.

Abbas (Abu Mazen), president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and thus president of Palestine, insists that the elections should be held on July 17. However, Fatah leaders are apprehensive that the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) would steal the thunder from them and walk away with a majority of the seats if elections were held in July. They prefer to have some more time to organise themselves and streamline the party, which is ridden with internal divisions and whose leaders are accused of corruption.

Abbas, who is also the leader of Fatah, has drawn criticism for bowing to Hamas demands on many fronts since he took over as president following the death of Yasser Arafat.

His insistence on the July 17 date for elections and on amending the election law is seen as yet another concession to Hamas. For, it is taken for granted by many that Hamas would emerge as the winners if elections are held next month, and the suggested change to the election law is also deemed as benefiting Hamas.

Abbas is suggesting that the law be amended to the effect that all members of the 132-seat assembly should be from national lists rather than the present arrangement of 88 from constituency lists -- meaning districtwise individuals -- and 44 from national lists (parties).

Hamas, which is deemed to be relatively stronger in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank, is more likely to benefit from fielding national list candidates than Fatah, and this only adds to the fears of the Fatah leaders.

Fatah won a majority in the Palestinian legislative council in last elections, but it is unlikely to do well in next polls. Its fears of a major election defeat at Hamas' hands were heightened when student elections last week at Bir Zeit and Bethlehem universities showed the Islamists were gaining strength in both universities. Both institutions are secular and attended by the sons and daughters of rich Palestinians, some of them Christian. Fatah had a majority of votes in both before the latest student elections.

The elections showed that Hamas is a powerful group that is continuing to gather strength at the expense of Fatah.

Against that reality, Abbas' inclination to go along with the Hamas demands for elections on July 17 pits him against the will of his own party, which has reportedly suggested a 70-day postponement i.e. elections on Sept.25.

Serious setback

Fatah, once the strongest and largest of the factions that make up the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has suffered a serious setback as a result of internal divisions. The death of Arafat saw Marwan Barghuthi, who is imprisoned in Israel, posing a challenge to Abbas's prospects of being elected president before he quit the race. Today, a large number of young Fatah members see Barghuthi as their leader rather than Abbas. Resentment over financial administration corruption in the PNA is yet another factor that has weakened Fatah.

And the net picture today is that Hamas, whose members are deemed to be more committed to its cause than its rivals, would do much better than Fatah in elections to the Palestinian legislative council. The group has announced it would field candidates and would also assume cabinet positions based on its performance in the elections.

Little choice

No doubt, Abbas is aware of this reality, but he has no choice but to press ahead with present plans.

He is under tremendous pressure from many sides. US President George W Bush, who argues that a wave of democracy is going to take over the Middle East as a result of his invasion and occupation of Iraq, has ruled out any delay in Palestinian elections.

Bush insisted on the Jan.30 date for elections in Iraq. He is insisting on elections in Lebanon in May. He is insisting on election reforms in Egypt, and he is insisting that the Palestinians should vote on July 17.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who obviously discussed the issue with Bush at the White House this month, could not actually care who wins the Palestinian elections. If Abbas's group wins, then he would seek to negotiate and force down his version of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the Palestinians. If hardliners like Hamas win the elections, then Sharon would simply clam up on the negotiations front and impose his unilateral military-based solution to the problem.

In his meeting with Bush at the US president's ranch in Texas this month, Sharon is said to have presented intelligence reports indicating that there is complete breakdown of Abu Mazen's grip on authority and that hardliners within Fatah plan to start armed attacks against Israelis in June and trigger Israeli retaliation leading to a situation that would not be conducive to elections.

Abbas is also apprehensive that Hamas would make good its threat to call off the de fact truce it has maintained since February if the elections were delayed.

Hamas is unlikely to move from its stand since it knows well that it stands to gain in July elections and it finds no reason to agree to a delay, particularly when it is clear that Fatah will use the intervening period not only to strengthen itself but also to weaken all rivals.

At this week's meeting of Palestinian legislators, Fatah is likely to seek to stall the endorsement of the amended election law that is crucial if elections were to be held on July 17. Palestinian officials say they need at least three months to prepare for elections.

Several young leaders of Fatah have reportedly warned Abbas that the change he is proposing would be voted down by all Fatah institutions.

Abbas's options are limited. His weekend visit to Egypt and Jordan was seen by his critics as a ploy to make himself absent from the Palestinian territories and thus abort a vote by Palestinian legislators on his proposals. The vote was supposed to take place on Sunday, but his absence pre-empted it.

Abbas has won a few more days before the crucial vote, but he cannot run from it. His choice is between postponing the elections and incur Hamas wrath and holding the polls on time and risking the loss of his power base. Beyond that, however, is the real question: Can he come up with a formula that keeps Fatah ranks intact?