The End of Mahmud Abbas

A United Nations report commission, created after the 2008-2009 Gaza War, has released a thundering report that has ripped through the Palestinian and Arab street, threatening to bring down Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and his entire cabinet.  Mandated to lead the mission was Richard Goldstone, the respected South African president of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR).

The 574-page Goldstone Report, released in mid-September, came out with a relatively balanced report, accusing both the Palestinians and Israelis of “war crimes” and possible crimes against humanity — verdicts strongly challenged by the Hamas-led government in Gaza and the Israeli government.  Also critical of the report, for its criticism of Israel, was the United States; while supporting it were Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Among other things, the report claims that Israel breached laws of armed conflict by attacking civilians indiscriminately, targeting civilian facilities and failing to provide them with early warning prior to attacks.  It added that the Israeli blockade of the Strip, which was imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in the summer of 2007, represented disproportionate force aimed at collective punishment.

The US representative to the UN Susan Rice expressed “serious concern” claiming that the report was “unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.”  State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, “Although the report covers both sides of the conflict, it focuses overwhelmingly on Israel’s actions” while keeping the “deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks.”

Within the US Congress, Gary Ackerman of New York, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, added, “In the self-righteous fantasyland inhabited by the authors [of the report], there’s no such thing as terrorism, there’s no such thing as Hamas, there’s no such thing as legitimate self-defense.”  The views were echoed in Israel, where Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman noted, “The Goldstone Commission is a commission established with the aim of finding Israel guilty of crimes ahead of time.”  For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the findings would “devastate the peace process”.

Although equally condemned in the report, Hamas saw it as a blessing in disguise because of its very harsh criticism of the Israelis.  If criticism of their conduct was the price for exposing and nailing Israel in the international community, this is something the leaders of Hamas were readily planning to accept.

The unexpected outcome of the Goldstone Report, however, was a stunning U-turn by the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority (PNA) of President Mahmud Abbas.  Last week, they surprised observers by seeking deferral of a UN debate on the Goldstone Report until next March, ostensibly, until awaiting a consensus on the findings.

The postponement request was made by the Pakistani representative at the UN Human Rights Council, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of countries in the Arab and Muslim world.  Popular lore in the Arab world — along with heavyweight media — claims that the decision to postpone the Goldstone Report was taken by the PNA, under pressure from the United States and Israel.

The news broke through the Palestinian street like mad, whipping up tremendous resentment for President Abbas.  Hamas claimed that his attitude had been “shameful and irresponsible”, calling on him to step down.  Thousands of protestors took to the streets, even in the Fateh-controlled West Bank, chanting anti-Abbas slogans while posters were plastered on the walls of Gaza saying, “To the trashbin of history, traitor Mahmud Abbas!”

Syria, which was expected to host Abbas last week, unilaterally canceled his visit, citing his stance on the Goldstone Report.  So high was the pressure on Abbas that one of his senior aides, former Information Minister Yasser Abd Rabbo, came out and said, “We must say a mistake has been made.  This mistake should not be underestimated or concealed.”

Abbas, who originally supported the six-month delay, quickly backed down, calling for an investigation to see how his own government supported such a decision.  Abd Rabbo and Abbas’ statements were a de facto admission that the PNA had in fact lobbied to delay the report, further complicating matters, rather than soothing the Palestinian street.  The Palestinian government released a statement saying that it was “unacceptable” to undermine the Goldstone Report, while Economy Minister Bassem Khoury stepped down to protest the president’s actions.

Rami Khoury, a respected journalist with the Beirut newspaper the Daily Star, wrote, “The Palestinian presidency has become an international embarrassment.  It generates no respect among the four principal constituencies where it should matter: the Palestinian people, the Israeli people and government, the Arab people and governments, and the rest of the world.  It is shocking — unbelievable, in fact — that Abbas should have totally wasted away the last bits of credibility and respect Yasser Arafat had left for him.”

To understand why Abbas is facing the worst turn of a political career that has spanned nearly 40 years, we must look into the political background of the man who grew old and grey under the towering influence of Yasser Arafat.

Abbas was never a fan of armed resistance and always looked down upon military leaders of the Palestinian movement, seeing them as rough and unrefined, no match for a civilian like himself raised in the grace of Damascus, where he studied at university, obtained a degree in law from Cairo and a PhD from Moscow.  He has a particular disdain for Hamas, seeing them as political amateurs who challenge him for leadership of the Palestinians.

The 74-year-old president, elected after Arafat’s death in 2004 — precisely because of his long association with Arafat — unilaterally extended his term as president last January, apparently more concerned with the trappings of power than parliamentary procedures or democratic life.

Back in March 2003, the US had literarily forced Yasser Arafat to appoint him prime minister, hoping that Abbas could clip the veteran Palestinian leader’s wings, but he resigned seven months later, due to lack of popularity and constant conflicts with Arafat over the distribution of power in the PNA.  His name had graced the ill-fated Oslo Accords of 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, making him more unpopular at the street level, especially with Hamas.

Since coming to power he has repeatedly tried to disarm and weaken armed groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are very popular with grassroots Palestinians.  When Abbas campaigned for office in 2005, however, he had to appeal to this same constituency — wearing Arafat’s famous checkered kufiyya — to elicit support from ordinary Palestinians who favored a steadfast approach towards dealing with Israel.

While Arafat looked like his people — always at war, with pistol to his side, wearing a military outfit — Abbas drives around in tinted cars, wearing a neatly pressed suite, very alien from the Palestinians he represents.

The Hamas seizure of Gaza in 2007 split Abbas’ PNA right in two, further undermining the colorless president.  The Gaza war came as a blessing in disguise for Abbas, raising hopes that the IDF would crush Hamas and restore Gaza to what he sees as its rightful owners, being him and his government.  The fact that it destroyed thousands of homes, hundreds of civilian facilities and 80 official buildings meant nothing to the PNA President.  Nor did the fact that according to Palestinian sources, more than 1,400 people were killed in 23 days of violence, more than half of them being civilians.

That war failed to eliminate Hamas from the Palestinian street and so did the US-led boycott of Gaza.  Nothing could be more upsetting to Abbas than the Goldstone Report, which shows how indifferent he was to the winter war raging on Palestinian territory, and raises the popularity ratings of Hamas by exposing Israeli war crimes.

Desperate perhaps, or impatient because of old age and months left in his presidency, Abbas took the ill-fated decision to support the delay of the Goldstone Report.  This effectively destroyed whatever credibility and legitimacy he had left on the Palestinian and Arab streets.  That credibility — gained at a time when Fateh was lead by Arafat and enjoyed some world respect — is now history, because of Mahmud Abbas and his stance on the Goldstone Report.

No wonder an increasing number of voices are now calling on him to step down not only in the Palestinian territories but within the wider Arab and Muslim world as well.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.  This article appeared in Asia Times under the title of “Gaza Report Seals Abbas’ Political Fate” on 9 October 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.

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