The recent announcement by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that he would not seek a second term in office or run in elections has prompted considerable speculation, even confusion, around the world. His decisions contains much ambiguity while conveying different messages to different parties at the same time.
It is almost certainly true that Abbas would prefer to no longer continue as president. He clearly feels let down and betrayed by most if not all his allies, including the Arab states and the Obama administration, and seems genuinely fed up with being put in impossible political situations over issues such as the elusive Israeli settlement freeze agreement and the Goldstone report into the Gaza war.
Unlike most politicians, Abbas did not really crave the presidency and never seemed fully comfortable or effective in the job. Given his experiences, any sentiment on his part to move on is understandable.
However, his statement was not a resignation speech at all, but a layered message and the most important layer was addressed to his American allies, in whom he is clearly extremely disappointed. Left out on a limb once too often, Abbas is now asking Washington to seriously consider the alternatives. It’s a not particularly subtle reminder that they are unlikely to find a more amenable peace partner any time in the foreseeable future, and that without Palestinian co-operation, no progress is possible.
One of the most powerful points Abbas made in his speech was his complaint that, in spite of the fact that the Palestinian position on permanent-status peace seems much closer to the American view than Israel’s, the US persistently sides with the government it disagrees with. This is because in the US matters regarding Israel are primarily driven by domestic political interests, with foreign policy considerations as secondary.
Abbas is saying that as long as the US finds itself essentially incapable of putting genuine pressure on Israel, or finding a way to prove it holds meaningful political support for its Palestinian partners, it is going to be almost impossible for Palestinian leaders to bridge the gap between diplomatic necessities internationally and political credibility domestically.
A similar message is being directed at Israel – aimed at the entire society, not just the present government. Abbas is urging it too to consider the probable relationship with a different Palestinian leadership from among the presently existing alternatives.
The most worrisome of these alternatives to many would be Hamas, another clear target of Abbas’s mixed messages. The president’s announcement was entirely framed around the question of elections, which Hamas has been opposing at every stage almost certainly because of a sustained collapse in its popularity and credibility over the past six months. Even the fiasco over the PLO’s mishandling of the Goldstone report has apparently not rescued its fortunes.
Fatah can seriously claim to have gone the extra mile in pursuit of elections: first it signed an Egyptian reconciliation plan that better served Hamas interests and called for elections in June, but Hamas refused. Then, Abbas called for elections in January, as required by Palestinian law – again, Hamas angrily refused. Now he has raised the stakes by saying he will not run for office again.
Abbas is almost daring Hamas to change its mind. Of course, if it does change its mind, he may change his. The lack of any obvious successor, the clear factional disunity within Fatah, his position as unchallenged party leader and his position as chairman of the PLO all make it very hard to imagine him being able to continue to demur in the event of actual elections. Because Palestinian law does not provide a practical alternative to elections for the replacement of the president, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to credibly complain about Abbas continuing in office.
As things stand, he can claim: “I really don’t want this job and I’ve made that pretty clear, but there isn’t any practical alternative so I’m going to have to continue in office. It’s everybody else’s fault but mine.”