Trusting Abbas

Is the Palestinian leader too old to change?

Mahmoud Abbas

It was early September 2003, and Mahmoud Abbas, the recently appointed but even more recently resigned prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, was addressing the Palestinian legislative council to explain his departure. I don’t work for the Americans or the Israelis, Abbas told his fellow Palestinians. “If they really wanted my government to succeed—as they kept saying—they would have helped me. They didn’t help, which proves that they didn’t want it to succeed.”

Abbas was a lonely man, but he wasn’t yet at the top. Back then, Yasser Arafat was still in power, restricting his every move, humiliating him, even threatening him from time to time or sending others to make the threats. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Abbas, Palestinian television played cartoons on Arafat’s instructions. When he met with President George Bush, Palestinian television showed a documentary about an Egyptian dancer. Arafat didn’t want Abbas to gain the status of a national leader; he didn’t want him to be seen as successor or heir apparent.

Time and again, Abbas had to promise his people that he wanted to keep them united, that he would never engage in a civil war. “It wasn’t my intention to confront Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” Abbas said back then. “We treated the different organizations as different branches of the Palestinian society”—not rivals or enemies. The government, Abbas said, was preaching for a “hudnah” (cease-fire) with Israel to avoid a Palestinian “civil war.”

The 2007 incarnation of Abbas is different in many ways from the 2003 version. He is now the democratically elected president, and there is no Arafat hovering over him. But, in many ways, little has changed. That’s why, a couple of months ago, he decided to sign the now-nullified Mecca Agreement with Hamas and to share power with them in a national unity government. Using force against Hamas was not what he planned for the Palestinians; it was something others constantly pushed for: Israel, the United States, some of his aides. Eventually, he was forced into it, this time by Hamas itself.

So, now he was tested by fire, and, all positive spins aside, in this first battle he was not on the winning side. “He is the president of all the Palestinians,” President Bush said of Abbas on Tuesday in his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But that’s only true in theory. In practice, Abbas lost half his constituency last week, along with a large chunk of the territory marked for his future independent state of Palestine. All he can do now is try to make the best of this devastating outcome.

“Critics will say that this is typical of Abbas,” wrote Martin Indyk of the Saban Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. The man who caved in Gaza is “a weak leader who would rather appease his challengers than confront them. But perhaps Abbas understands the emerging realities better than they do,” Indyk wrote. People talking to Abbas in recent days testify to a newfound resolve, the development of a backbone. They try as hard as they can to sell the story Indyk is pushing: Giving up on Gaza was a smart move, and Hamas has overplayed its hand. Gaza is a mess; let them deal with it.

The trouble is that Abbas’ history suggests otherwise. He didn’t make a decision; he was pushed into it. And this decision cannot endure for very long. “While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared an end to the national unity government, I have little doubt that he will be talking to Hamas in the relatively near future,” wrote Dennis Ross, former special U.S. envoy for the peace process who knows Abbas as well as anyone in the West. “We should not be fooled by Abbas’ rhetoric. Sooner or later he will be forced to pursue new power-sharing arrangements between Hamas and Fatah and restore unity among Palestinians,” wrote Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller, two other former members of the Clinton team, who rarely agree with Ross.

“He is a man who showed great courage,” someone familiar with Abbas told me in an attempt to convince me that “this time it’s different.” It had better be. “[O]ur hope is that President Abbas and that Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, who is a good fellow, will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,” President Bush said Tuesday. Some will take this as a sign of Bush’s recognition that it’s time to give Abbas some help. But looking at it from a different angle, it’s the same old Abbas story. The story of the reluctant leader, dragged almost against his will into the operating room, where he receives a backbone transplant.

So, two questions arise: Does Abbas have the strategy, and does he have the character? Neither question is easy to answer.

Strategy-wise (and some will say this is also a matter of character), in the past Abbas chose to accommodate Hamas and unite the Palestinians, but now he seems to have taken a different path. Ruling the West Bank and leaving Gaza to its fate for a while is an intriguing idea—one that very few people believe can actually work—and lacking other, better, ideas, it might be worth a try. But characterwise, the big question about Abbas is more personal and much more difficult to answer: Does anyone believe that people can change at the age of 72?