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Gaza the litmus test for Abbas

By Leanne Piggott - posted Thursday, 13 January 2005

Following the death of Yasser Arafat last November, Gaza's former preventative security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, identified Mahmoud Abbas as a person who could provide the Palestinians with "a bridge between the past, the present and the future". By electing Abbas as their new President at the weekend, an impressive two-thirds majority of Palestinian voters seem to be of the same view.

But Dahlan's emphasis on continuity in the Palestinian leadership, which was echoed in comments made by Abbas during the election campaign, is strictly for the sake of appearances. Both men know that only by breaking decisively with the failed policies of the past will Abbas be able to lead his people into a new and better future.

In the past the Palestinians have been poorly served by political leaders who, time and again, sacrificed the requirements of good governance for the crude exigencies of preserving their monopoly over power. Hopefully, in Abbas the Palestinians have a new kind of leader, one whose strengths lie well beyond the politics of public posturing and symbolism.


Abbas is keenly aware of the importance of making the policy transition from a reflexive resort to terrorism to a serious engagement with the long-term tasks of building both state and civil society. His was one of the few voices in the Palestinian leadership that was prepared to take Arafat to task, publicly, for maladministration.

Upon his appointment as the first Palestinian prime minister in April 2003, Abbas announced his intention to fight corruption in the Palestinian Authority. He also sought, unsuccessfully, to weaken Arafat's control over the PA's security services. Arafat was too strongly entrenched to enable Abbas to make real reforms and after five months Abbas resigned.

Significantly, too, Abbas has frequently expressed opposition in the Arab press to the use of violence against Israeli civilians, supporting instead non-violent means to resist the occupation. Accordingly, he has repudiated Arafat's policy of speaking the language of peace for Western consumption while secreting funds and weapons to Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades and stoking anti-Jewish hatred in the Palestinian media and school system.

Throughout his campaigning for Sunday's poll, Abbas's message that the violent tactics of the intifada have failed, and that "everything can be settled by dialogue", were not well received by those Palestinians who still cling to the old dream of destroying Israel. If Arafat was the main obstacle to reform in 2003, it is the Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are now the main opposition to Abbas.

The crucial question is whether Abbas is justified in expressing confidence that he can win over the extremists through negotiations. Despite the Islamists' boycott of the poll, the international observers' confirmation of the legitimacy of the electoral process will put pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad to accept the voters' verdict. But will they?

This will depend on whether Abbas is perceived by his people to be making real gains. An early test will be how well Abbas and his administration handle Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for the second half of the year.


This area has long been an Islamist stronghold. Israel will need to abandon its unilateralist approach and work with Abbas towards a smooth hand-over of Gaza to the PA. If the Islamists take over that area instead, it may well set back the Palestinian cause and the prospects for peace by another generation. The stakes are high indeed.

Another test will be whether Israel relaxes its control over the movement of Palestinians at numerous checkpoints in the West Bank, a daily cause of hardship and humiliation for Palestinians. A renewed inflow of funds and diplomatic support from the US would also be seen as signs of success.

There are already indications of a shift in the popular mood, evident in the high voter turnout for Sunday's poll, especially among women. While the Islamist Palestinian groups were opposed in principle to the elections, they did not use violence and terror to try to stop people from voting, in stark contrast to the methods currently being adopted by the Islamists and other extremists in Iraq.

The new mood appears also to extend to Palestinian policy towards Israel. After four years of fruitlessly pursuing a strategy of violence, a growing number of Palestinians seem to feel that concrete political and economic gains are far more important than the past symbolism and posturing of their leaders. Heartened by Abbas's public rejection of violence, they are now prepared to say so, openly, rather than in whispers behind closed doors.

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First published in The Australian on January 11, 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).

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