Abbas is taking a wrong turning

By Marcus Sheff, December 29, 2011
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Mahmoud Abbas: a new Arafat?

Mahmoud Abbas: a new Arafat?

Seven years after he inherited the leadership from Yasser Arafat, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is matching his predecessor in popularity. But, like Arafat, Abbas has chosen not to spend the accumulated political capital to pursue peace negotiations.

Taking advantage of Israel's policy of minimum intervention in Palestinian daily life, combined with the long break in violence since the end of the second intifada, Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, have stabilised the Palestinian economy and ushered in unprecedented growth.

Palestinians in the West Bank value falling unemployment rates, increased tourism and a far greater sense of personal security. The gunmen are off the streets in Palestinian towns. Trained police officers are on patrol and the courts are processing criminal offenders. Ordinary citizens are enjoying the new restaurants, cinemas and shopping malls.

And, interestingly, Abbas's (probably doomed) decision to seek full UN membership for the state of Palestine has won him plaudits. Palestinians say the bid showed that Abbas was willing to defy US, Israeli and even European pressure in pursuit of Palestinian pride.

"Even if it is a partial step, it is taking us forward," said one Palestinian. "He stole the world's attention," said another.

So Abbas has finally buried the ghost of Arafat and achieved the status of a trusted and popular national leader. But he is repeating Arafat's biggest error - failing to pave the path to a lasting peace.

The ferment taking place across North Africa, the Middle East and down to the Gulf cannot be blamed for this. Palestinians have remained largely unenthusiastic about the Arab Spring.

Apart from the reported relocation of Hamas headquarters from an embattled Damascus, Palestinians seem untouched by the chaos in the Arab world - a striking reversal of the much-touted notion that the Palestinians are the key to regional stability.

"Our situation is excellent compared to other Arab countries. There is no reason why we would overturn the regime," was one typical response during polling and focus groups in Gaza and the West Bank conducted as part of The Israel Project's Arabic-language, People to People programme.

Palestinians say they enjoy their new sense of security and growing prosperity and do not want a third intifada. But they also reject real political engagement with the Israeli government to end the conflict.

Following Abbas's lead, they want to boycott goods produced by Israeli companies in the West Bank, and embarrass Israel and the US using every available international platform, from the UN Security Council to UNESCO to a re-run of the Durban Conference Against Racism. This will lead into a dead end. The only way to achieve the stability and security desired by the Palestinian population is through peace talks, not grandstanding.

Will Mahmoud Abbas be able exploit his present popularity to take that final step towards peace talks with Israel? Or will he be remembered as the man who emerged from Arafat's shadow only to drift back into darkness?

Marcus Sheff is executive director of The Israel Project's Israel office

    Last updated: 12:40pm, December 29 2011