All Writings
December 5, 2005

Abbas’s Fateful Hour

I have just returned from a week-long trip to Israel and Palestine during which I met with many Israeli and Palestinian officials, intellectuals, and ordinary people. This article is the first in a series of articles written with the hope of shedding some new light on many conflicting issues at a time when revolutionary changes are sweeping the political landscape in both societies.

Perhaps more than at any other time in his decades-long struggle for the cause of his people, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces a fateful and historic hour. The question is whether he will rise to the occasion, seize the moment, and lift his people up or allow this – perhaps his last – chance for peace to slip away. To achieve his ultimate goal of a two-state solution, Mr. Abbas must develop his domestic socioeconomic agenda, earnestly tackling the multiple problems that have plagued the Palestinian society.

The second Intifadah, which destroyed much of Palestinian economy, security, and infrastructure, and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, have dramatically changed the political dynamic between the two societies. Israel has resigned itself to taking increasingly unilateral steps, including the building of a fence designed to enhance its national security and create the conditions for two states. Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders continue to push for a comprehensive solution, virtually freezing economic developments and sorely neglecting the welfare of the Palestinian people. Mr. Abbas must now take a fresh look at the confluence of these events demanding his immediate attention. He must produce a sound and resolute political agenda upon which to base his platform for the January 25th Palestinian Legislative Council Elections. Mr. Abbas must gather the willpower since failure will consign him to political oblivion regarding the Palestinian national cause.

Mr. Abbas need not look farther than a few miles to the West to witness his counterpart Prime Minister Sharon’s revolutionary political transformation, necessitated by the changing sociopolitical conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians. In Sharon we have a leader who has invested every hour of his political career to fight for greater Israel, earning him the title of architect of the settlement policy. Nevertheless, as a prime minister he realized that occupation was not demographically sustainable. He subsequently abandoned his decades-long affiliation with the Likud party, though he helped to build it, because the party was now out of touch with reality.

Considering the existing volatile political atmosphere and risks to his own life, Mr. Abbas’s task will take similar courage. Whether we are born great or greatness is thrust upon us, history shows that men like Mr. Abbas do rise to the occasion. He may have that instinct and sense of historic responsibility since his actions can offer hope to his people, paving the way to rebuilding the Palestinian body and spirit. Whereas Mr. Abbas may wish to promote a set of demands from Israel leading to a two-state solution, professor Sari Nuseibah, President of al Quds University, believes that Mr. Abbas should make his domestic agenda the focus of the upcoming elections. Palestinian people want to see immediate improvement in their daily lives, not wait another 10 years until a permanent solution is achieved. To that end there are five issues on which Mr. Abbas must concentrate:

First, Mr. Abbas must heed the call of the young leaders that have grown yet languished under Israeli occupation. They want change; they want an end to cronyism, corruption, and disdain for the people’s welfare. Every effort must be made to ensure that the political primaries are held without further intimidation, threats, or violence. The so-called young guard must be given equal chance to compete freely and fairly regardless of their political leanings. Mr. Abbas must provide the security needed to insure that the primaries in the remaining days are held in an orderly fashion so that complaints and contentions about the elections will be kept to an absolute minimum.

Second, Mr. Abbas must not shirk the responsibility to enforce the law. This is what every Palestinian wants. They are tired of lawlessness, living on edge, and seeking protection anywhere except from the security personnel of the Authority. This, obviously, cannot be changed in seven weeks, but Mr. Abbas must assert his authority, signaling to the Palestinians how he will conduct himself following the national elections. He can select two manageable areas – one in the West Bank and another in Gaza – and declare those areas weapons-free, requiring all of their residents to surrender their arms in return for monetary compensation. He must then criminalize the open or hidden carrying of firearms in the street. Once fully enforced in these two areas, he can expand the ban on firearms to other areas, enforcing the law with no exception.

Third, Mr. Abbas must immediately begin labor intensive development projects such as housing, especially in Gaza. Not only is there a desperate need for housing among tens of thousands of families living in squalor in refugee camps, but such projects provide thousands of sorely needed jobs where the unemployment rate is as high as 50 percent. When I asked Oded Ben-Haim from Israel’s Foreign Ministry what he would advise Mr. Abbas to do, rather than disarming Hamas, to my surprise he said: “He should first and foremost focus on economic development which will provide the basis for civic calm.” Able-bodied residents of refugee camps can be employed in housing projects so that they develop a sense of ownership and self-esteem by living in the apartment complexes they themselves earned wages in building. In a similar vein, schools, health-care clinics, roads, and scores of other technological and research projects can be initiated. Billion of dollars have been committed by donor nations who are ready to provide the needed funds once the near anarchy in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank is brought under control. No one is suggesting that all of this can happen before elections, but Mr. Abbas must make it abundantly clear that he is committed to economic development and that nothing will divert or deter him from this national agenda.

Fourth, none of the above can happen unless Mr. Abbas recommits himself to reforming his security apparatus, specifically his preventive intelligence, and putting a stop to internal violence and attacks against Israel. Not only will Israel inflict devastating blows in retaliation but to the detriment of every Palestinian, the resumption of violence will also diminish any prospect of economic development. According to a recent poll conducted by Dr. Nabil Kukali, President of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, over 70 percent of Palestinians support the continuation of the ceasefire. When I asked him about his findings, he said: “The Palestinians want peace and prosperity; that is what they long for. ” Mr. Abbas must make it crystal clear to Hamas and other militant groups that violating the cease-fire with Israel will no longer be tolerated. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, further added that “Hamas should be free to politically campaign with no Israeli hindrance so that they will accept the result of the election without protest, and hence the Palestinian Authority will impose one gun, one law, and one authority the day after the election.” The question is whether Hamas will take the PA seriously. Considering this, Mr. Abbas must repudiate Hamas’ leader Khaled Mashaal, who recently stated that “Hamas is not going to renew the truce because Israel did not abide by the truce.”

This issue is particularly important since Hamas is participating in the political process and the realignment of Israel’s political landscape is in response to Palestinian exigencies. A nonviolent atmosphere will insure Sharon’s reelection and widen the base his new center party, Kadima. Sharon remains the only credible and tested leader overwhelmingly trusted by a majority of Israelis. Although Palestinians do not agree with many of his policies, they should play their part because he is the one who can make the necessary concessions for peace.

Fifth and finally, Mr. Abbas must remove the culture of violence by promoting the sanctity of life. As a compassionate leader, he has the capacity to convince the Palestinian people that they have no future unless they engage in self-examination and spiritual rejuvenation rather than self-destructive violence. He must wear the mantles of both spiritual leader and elder statesman, promoting amity, brotherhood, and compassion. The Palestinian people have had more than their share of suffering. He must start a national healing campaign, beginning with children in every learning institution. Palestinian children have the right to live with dignity today and cannot wait for the future realization of lofty political schemes, sacrificing their innocence on the altar of misguided leadership.

Over the past five decades the Palestinians tragically lost many opportunities to live in peace side by side with Israel. These opportunities have been squandered largely because of misguided policies based upon misreads of the realities on the ground. For the first time in several decades, both camps are experiencing a growing sense of realism concerning the possibilities of lasting peace. Mr. Abbas may now have his last chance to answer the call of his people.