When the current Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) first “met” on March 6, 2006 (via videoconference, thanks to Israel’s travel restrictions), the Palestinian Authority embarked on the final phase of its struggle to become a democratic proto-state. This was to be the first government formed under the new Palestinian constitution, the Basic Law passed by the PLC in 1998 and finally signed by President Arafat in 2002.
The government envisioned by the constitution is a dramatic departure from the autocratic days of Arafat. The bulk of practical state power, including “public order and internal security”, is expressly assigned to the Council of Ministers, the prime minister’s cabinet. The president has the power to hire and fire the PM, approve the cabinet, and declare states of emergency, but is otherwise little mentioned in the document.
When the Basic Law was drafted during the 1990s, Fateh dominated the PA. Its authors may have hoped its democratic processes and responsibilities would reform their party as well as their government. They could not have foreseen that when the Articles finally came to life, it would be too late for Fateh to benefit as expected. Nor could they have known that the constitution would be threatened at birth because Hamas had been elected to lead the government.
The legal obligation facing President Abbas sixteen months ago was to respect the new division of powers enunciated in the constitution. This was also his duty to the people, who had long demanded democratic reform and an end to one man-one clique rule.
But Abbas was given excuses to escape this obligation. Washington forbade him to cooperate with the elected Hamas government. A brutal economic excuse was supplied by the western powers’ embargo against the PA. And, since he and his cronies had negotiated away control of the PA’s tax revenues in the Oslo Accords, Israel was able to illegally seize the PA’s money when the Hamas government took office.
What could he do?
He could have decided that the unity of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination was more important than the immediate needs of his cadres and the diplomatic bluster of Israel and its friends. He could have challenged the US, EU and Israel to support the democratic outcome of the elections, which would have forged a unified Palestinian front to shame the “international community” for its boycott and interference. He could have recognized that this strategy, conducted resolutely, would be more likely to restore the PA’s revenues, more quickly, than any confrontational approach he could take with Hamas.
Instead, Abbas has been listening to his old guard while trying to take orders from Washington, beg for crumbs from Israel, defeat Hamas, form a national unity government, and lead the Palestinian people. Who knew the old stiff could be such a contortionist?
We know from people who know him that Mr. Abbas is a “good guy”. We understand that the man has principles, but most of the time he seems incapable of acting on them.
He crossed the line when he allowed arch Zionist and former Iran-Contra criminal Elliott Abrams, in the Bush White House, to arm and train his security forces, including those of Mohammed Dahlan, his chief warlord in Gaza. This opened the door to a plot to wage civil war against Hamas in Gaza. When Prime Minister Haniyeh responded by asserting his constitutional control of Gaza’s “public order and internal security”, the plot was soon vanquished, with brutality on both sides.
Or was it? As if he had expected the outcome, Abbas made his next move with unaccustomed speed. The Bush administration directed it and the EU and Israel broke out in instant applause. The firing of Prime Minister Haniyeh may have been his last legal act as president of the PA. His new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, appeared to have his unconstitutional “emergency” cabinet waiting in the wings.
Abbas, ever the political chameleon, now plays the unlikely role of strong man, directing his “security forces” in the West Bank to round up and detain Hamas members, some of whom are tortured. He and Fayyad are collaborating with Israel’s scheme to resume total control over Gaza’s borders, enabling it to isolate and starve the people in the futile effort to crush Hamas.
Abbas has now struck an open alliance with Israel and the US against Hamas, despite its continuing plea for dialog to restore the unity government. Abbas is even willing to disgrace himself in front of his own people by making preposterous accusations against the group. ‘They were going to blow me up! They are linked to Al-Qaida and are bringing it into Gaza! I won’t talk to “murderous terrorists”!’ Such talk, ridiculed at home, can only be fodder for the Zionist press and its many readers in Congress.
Now that Palestinian politics is everybody’s business, let’s put international forces in the Gaza Strip. That’s what Mr. Abbas has been urging lately. Employ “peacekeepers” to complete the overthrow of the constitutionally mandated caretaker government and seal its usurpation by Abbas’ Group of 13, so (ostensibly) beloved by Israel and the US. Somehow that would solve the “Hamas problem”.
Simultaneously, Mr. Abbas claims to be a legitimate partner for immediate negotiations with the occupation. Since Israel traditionally signs treaties with the PLO, which Abbas chairs, these statements are worrisome. If he continues on this course, he could, at the very least, fracture the PLO, just as he is threatening to fracture the resistance by cutting deals with Israel to spare Fateh militants who quit.
AIPAC, Israel’s powerful Washington “lobby”, has just announced its support for Abbas’ moves. The Zionists relish this chance to poison Abbas with their public praise while using him to weaken Hamas. “Divide and conquer” means that they defeat both halves. Why is he still playing along?
James Brooks serves as webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org