Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Palestinian Leadership Issue
As much as the death of Arafat brought the opportunity to reinvigorate the Middle-East peace process, so it also brought certain inherent threats, the antecedents of which are currently unfolding in the Palestinian leadership battle.

Arafat was heralded for his ability to merge the various militant Palestinians factions into some coherence and order, without which competing factions could push both the Palestine, and Israel, into full-scale war.

Since Arafat's death, the onus has been on Mahmoud Abbas, as new PLO leader, to prove that he could do the same. Ominously, Abbas yesterday concluded his talks in the Gaza Strip with Hamas and twelve other militant factions without securing any noticeable support. Abbas is likely to be the Fatah Central Committee's choice candidate for President of the Palestinian Authority in the elections in early January and this was his first real test of influence. In the talks he rightfully spurned a request to share power with Hamas in a new 'coalition' government. Resultantly, Hamas and the majority of the factions have stated that they will boycott the elections, and "scoffed" at Abbas' pleas to cease attacks on Israel until the elections.

The use of attacks against Israel in the run-up to the elections will be an easy way for the militants to promote the cause of more of a hardline presidential candidate. Their attacks will undoubtedly spark strong retaliations from Israel, which will further entrench retribution and distance the Palestinian people from Abbas' attempts at peaceful rhetoric. Israel, for its part, has agreed to assist in this current process by only attacking so-called "ticking-bomb" targets, terrorists on the way to commit suicide bombings. This however, will be a fragile premise after a Hamas attack.

The ultimate danger is that the factions will act with impunity and become self-serving cells rather than falling under any semblance of authority, as they partly did under Arafat. Abbas is no fool, and is already taking precautionary steps, ordering a crackdown on armed groups operating in Palestinian areas. Whether this will be tolerated by these groups is another acid test of Abbas' leadership.

According to Reuters, U.S. diplomats are "set to meet Abbas next week hope the election will install a moderate president mandated to talk peace with Israel." The chances of that happening are incredibly short, and if it were to happen, the Palestinian militant factions would no doubt incessantly sabotage peace initiatives anyway.

The runup to the January 9 elections will be critical in the wider implications for peace and democracy in the Middle East, and it is one which the entire world will watching for fear of its consequence. No wonder Tony Blair's congratulatory speech to Bush was marked with a plea to prioritise this issue as a central tenet of both of their final terms. There are few better things to leave as a legacy, but few more difficult.