Friday, November 13, 2009

Abbas is set to destabilize


The Middle East Institute held its annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. last week. Many world-renowned scholars, current and former government officials and retired military and intelligence officers participated in the conference. The climate in the conference was grim, and one heard the word “despair” more than “hope,” and “collapse” more than “collaboration” in the conference. This pessimistic outlook was obvious during the last panel of the two-day conference as well, titled "Arab-Israel Peace and the Domestic Political Obstacles."

One discussant in this last was Khalil Shikaki, a Brandeis University professor and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survery Research in Ramallah, which has conducted more than 100 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1993. He chose to weigh in on the recent announcement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, not to run for reelection in 2010. After months of frustration, apparently Abbas feels that he is in an impossible position to move forward for a comprehensive peace settlement.

Obama, after his grandiose speech in Cairo, lifting the hopes of the Arab world for a few months by his bold pronouncement to prove that he indeed is serious to deliver and change the perception of his country in the region, he has now come back to square one in recent weeks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to backpedal in her visit to the region from the only condition the American administration put forward, which was freezing the settlements.

In such a desperate mode, maybe the most upbeat statement in the conference came from Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation and veteran Israeli peace negotiator, who said that the Obama administration, at least getting involved with the Arab-Israel peace process in their first year, not the seventh or the eighth, still would have time to correct the course or their mistakes. Levy was right on in pointing out Obama's early start; however, one needs to really dig deep to find hopeful signs about what Obama’s team has done so far in order to bring some hope for the future.

Shikaki, an expert who follows the region very closely and regularly takes Palestinian people's pulse with his polling center, first gave a quick brief about what Abbas has done for the last five years. According to Shikaki, Abbas delivered an unprecedented security for Israel with an effective stability in the West Bank. Abbas has been able to do this by restructuring the Palestinian institutions with much better service than has ever been seen for the past 16 years. He said that 60 percent of Palestinians were now feeling safer, up from 25 percent a few years ago.

Shikaki added that in the West Bank, for the first time in history, the chain of command has been effectively established in security ranks, and security forces have come strictly under civilian authority. In addition, many Palestinian armed leaders or warlords have lost their authority to freely attack Israel and thereby causing retaliation by the Israeli forces. The justice system is also repaired, and for the first time again, the Palestinians have come to trust their justice system now, even though there is yet much more to be done. The corruption, once an infamous twin word for the Fatah, also has decreased rapidly.

Regarding the relationship with Hamas, Shikaki also argued that Abbas cracked down on the Fatah as well as the Hamas militants, and most of the armed Hamas militants have been put in jail, although the political wing of Hamas has been left untouched, he added, not because of Israel, but for the sake of Palestine's democracy. And the harsh treatment for Hamas was not done because the Israelis wanted it, but because 95 percent of the Fatah delegates, in a recent Fatah conference, identified Hamas as a coup-prone and violent movement.

Abbas also repaired the badly damaged U.S.-Palestine ties, which are back to where they were in the 1990s during the Clinton years. And in light of this better relationship with the United States, now most of the Palestinians consider America's role in the peace process as favorable. And Shikaki reveals that only last year Israel's former prime minister Olmert and Abbas held secret talks, and got closer than ever to a peace deal, including the exchange of maps concerning the final borders of a Palestinian state. However, with the new elections in Israel, the Netanyahu administration did not even care about these secret talks.

Abbas reformed the Fatah, Shikaki concluded, made a great transition and change in the political life of Palestine; but for what Abbas asks himself now. He realizes, after delivering many promises that many thought were undeliverable, nobody is out there to move the peace process forward. After long years of hard work, the West Bank is now a safe place, both for its people and also for Israel. Instead, Abbas felt that he was being let down, and that all he did was to make Israel happy, with nothing in return.

Therefore, in recent times, the security that is provided for Israel, Shikaki argues, is perceived by the Palestinians as a collaboration with the invading forces. Good relations with America also seem to be very costly, as Abbas took heavy flak from many of his supporters with his initial rejection of the GoldStone Report in the United Nations Human Council, under the pressure from American diplomats. Right after U.S. Secretary of State Clinton praised Netanyahu's move as “unprecedented.”
So Abbas decides, since nothing is working, the only way forward is to destabilize the region, or give it a shock therapy. Shikaki predicts that this shock therapy will have different episodes, ups and downs. For example, Abbas will start shutting down the information channels with the outside world; he will not see a reporter, will not give an interview or make statements. Then after the announcement of the resignation, the real resignation will come as well, together with the rest of his Cabinet.

The shock therapy might be the final way to put the peace talks on the right track, Shikaki believes. Maybe someone will try to put the peace track right back, once it is understood that the situation is serious. If not, Abbas will quit, with everyone else in the Palestinian Authority and that will cause the crash of the system.

According to the polls among the people of Palestine, Shikaki declares that two-thirds of the Palestinians now think that they tried every possible way for the peace process, but failed. Therefore, the time is now to visit violence, because they think this option could be the only helpful way for moving forward.

We will see how Shikaki's predictions will turn out, and if anyone will take the signals seriously, before such chaos hits the region.

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