Everybody Loves Abbas – Except Palestinians

With nine days to deadline for candidates, at least seven or eight contestants are expected to put their names down to run against Mohammed Abbas, best known as Abu Mazen, in the January 9 Palestinian presidential election. Even in his own Fatah, his nomination is not assured. Yet lavish expressions of support are being extended to him on every hand in the West; outgoing US secretary of state Colin Powell came to Jericho especially to meet him Monday, November 22 and through him to “re-engage” Washington’s Middle East commitment; he will be followed later this week by a bevy of European foreign ministers, Jack Straw of Britain, Sergei Lavrov of Russia, and Miguel Moratinos of Spain. President George Bush and UK premier Tony Blair have hailed him as the herald of democracy for the Palestinian people, others as guarantor of the Middle East road map. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has offered to pull Israeli troops out of West Bank towns to facilitate the presidential election and shown his approval in other ways.
They are all lionizing Abbas as Yasser’ Arafat’s putative successor and great white hope for a brighter future and an end to a dismal conflict, although every intelligence report placed before his admirers predicts he will be tripped up before the ballot. Most analysts would not be surprised if he was murdered by groups bankrolled from Tehran and the Lebanese Hizballah or by terrorist factions in his own Fatah.
Inside the Fatah, the Tanzim fighting wing launched Sunday, November 21, a campaign to collect 250,000 signatures for the nomination in his stead of jailed West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as the party’s candidate. The fiery Barghouti is serving a life sentence in Israel for staging terrorist murders of dozens of Israelis. To avoid a Fatah split, there is also a proposal for him to stand as Abbas’s running mate. Should Abu Mazen steps aside, prime minister Ahmed Qureia would quickly step forward to replace him.
The West Bank Fatah branches are furious over being ignored by Abbas who devoted to the Gaza Strip the first critical week after Arafat’s funeral. Many did not bother to put their names on the voters’ rolls in time to participate in the election. To give Abbas a chance, the rolls would have to be re-opened.
Abu Mazan finally returned to Ramallah Sunday night, November 21, after a week of intense efforts to negotiate a ceasefire on the part of rival Palestinian factions in Gaza Strip. Those efforts came to naught. In a show of no-confidence, Hamas, the Palestinian “Fronts” and left-wing groups are shopping for nominees capable of beating him. They first approached the grand old man of Palestinian left-wing politics, 85-year old Haider Abdel Shafi, who even in retirement is capable of tapping greater popularity on the West Bank and Gaza Strip than Abu Mazen. He declined the nomination but agreed to join the hunt for an alternative.
A new name that came up Sunday was that of the new Palestinian legislative council chairman Hassan Khereisha from Tulkarm, whose great advantage is that like Shafi he is Mr. Clean and acceptable to a broad range of Palestinian opinion from Hamas to the radical Fronts and Tanzim. Another likely runner also regarded as free of corruption is the terrorist architect, Hussam Khader. Like Barghouti, he sits in an Israeli jail on terror convictions, a fact that enhances both their popularity on the Palestinian street.
Nablus multimillionaire Muneib al-Masry, independent, may also throw his hat in the ring, capitalizing on Abu Mazen’s unpopularity in West Bank financial and business circles.
Most analysts consulted by debkafile are of the opinion that even if Abu Mazen won the election against this formidable array of opponents, he would not last long. His radical enemies, up in arms at his rejection of the Arafat doctrine of terror, wield the destabilizing threat of violent riots, terror and mayhem – especially in the Gaza Strip. Local terrorist chiefs and militia commanders will flaunt heir rejection of his authority. Once Abu Mazen is disposed of, the Palestinian Authority is expected to implode internally; paramilitary groups subsisting on terrorism, protection rackets and armed robbery will reduce the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank to warring fiefdoms.
While Sharon persists in publicly offering Abu Mazen assistance, he places little trust in his chances of assuming office and any real control. In fact he told insiders he expects the next two months to bring serious outbreaks of terror and deepening chaos in Palestinian areas.
The weakness at the new Palestinian helm is clearly visible in several ways.
1. A week after Abu Mazen was surrounded in the Gaza Strip by three dozen gunmen shooting in the air, no arrests have been made and no punishments meted out, because neither the Palestinian police nor security services are prepared to act on his behalf – or even for his protection.
2. Hamas and other radical groups are threatening to boycott the vote.
3. The week Abbas and Qureia spent in Gaza ended in fiasco and humiliation. Hamas sent them back to Ramallah with a list of questions. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report: answers that would satisfy Hamas enough to permit the dialogue to continue would be tantamount to repudiating the endorsement of the Middle East road map and condemnation of terrorism that Abbas offered publicly at the June 2003 Aqaba summit with President Bush and prime minister Sharon. By this means, Hamas seeks to impose on him acceptance of their continuous terrorist campaign.
4. During their week in Gaza, Abbas and Qureia made no progress towards reconciling the feuding faction chiefs. Reports that Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and general intelligence chief Mussa Arafat – whose militias came to blows three months ago – made up are unfounded. Abu Mazen only got them together in the same room for 10 minutes, but there were no handshakes or an exchanged word. That feud is expected to blow up at any time.
5. Even after foregoing the chair of the Fatah Central committee to the extremist overseas leader, Farouk Kaddoumi, most Fatah activists believe it is presumptuous of Abbas to aspire to emulate Arafat by holding both of the remaining prime functions of Chairman-President of the Palestinian Authority and head of the umbrella Palestinian Liberation Organization. They want him to be satisfied with one.
6. Even were he willing, he lacks the power to remove anti-Israel hate propaganda from the Palestinian Authority-controlled media, which Sharon requested as a gesture to improve the climate of relations.
The French government’s coyness in handing over the medical files covering Arafat’s last days in the Percy military hospital has piled on new trouble for the Abbas-Qureia duo. Some rumors running rife in the Palestinian street not only accuse Israel of poisoning him but suggest that his would-be successors may be complicit in the crime. The PA set up an official inquiry panel to find out the truth and sent the dead leader’s nephew Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian UN delegate, to Paris to claim the documents. Before he arrived, the widow Suha Arafat took possession of the precious files and absconded with them to Tunis. Still, as a close kinsman, al-Kidwa hopes the French authorities will grant him access on Monday, November 22.
Suha is holding onto the records both as warranty for her safety and her promised “pension” and as a weapon to hang over the heads of the moderates preparing to step into her husband’s shoes, or even place them at the disposal of his radical Palestinian opponents, such as Kaddoumi.

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