Apr 30 2003

Abu Mazen Usher new Palestinian Phase

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Without wanting to, I found myself in the middle of an inter Palestinian power struggle in 1997. Although Palestinians had witnessed historic legislative elections the new Palestinian legislative council was fighting for recognition and respectability from and unexpected rival. The Palestinian executive branch headed by President Yasser Arafat. My ‘sin’ was that I was helping empower the Legislative Council by broadcasting live its deliberations on a local educational television station. I was the weak link in the struggle between the executive branch and the legislative branch. I paid a price by being detained for one week after broadcasting a session dealing with corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

The vote this week by the 88-member council for the government of Abu Mazen should be seen much more than a vote of confidence in one man. The decision ushers in the constitutional creation of the position of an empowered prime minister accountable to the Palestinian Legislative Council. This power sharing process is seen by many Palestinians as a small internal revolution. The mechanism for reform embedded in this new phase has not been lost on Palestinian business people and the average man and woman in the street.

For the man who becomes the very first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, this will not be an easy time. He comes in at a time of extremely high Palestinian expectations which follow a host of US and European promises for a better Palestinian future climaxing with an independent state by 2005.

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is a member of two of the highest Palestinian decision making bodies. He is a member of the central committee of the ruling Palestinian movement, Fatah. He is also a member of the executive committee of the PLO. Yet these high level positions have done little to enhance his popularity. The latest public opinion polls show Abbas numbers in the low single digits. He has done little to improve his image in the Palestinian street. He rarely gives interviews and is rarely seen in public. For the most part, however, Abu Mazen is not expected to be part of a public media blitz but his close advisors are saying that he plans to improve his media presence in the local Palestinian media as well as with the Israeli media.

The fact that Abu Mazen acts more and more like a civil servant rather than a charismatic leader must be bad news to many in Israel and the US. The Sharon and Bush administrations who have led an international effort to discredit and delegitimize Yasser Arafat have been hoping that Abu Mazen would replace Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people. Political analysts are also warning Americans and Israelis from falling in the trap of considering the vote of confidence in the new government of Mahmoud Abbas as a vote of lack of confidence in the leadership of Yasser Arafat. This is not the first time that the head of the PLO has been declared politically dead only to reappear with little loss of power.

For while Abbas and Arafat have differed in the past few months over the make up and powers of the new government, both are in agreement about basic political issues. They see eye to eye on issues of negotiations with Israel and on the minimum national demands that Palestinians would accept. In fact many Palestinians feel that the combinations of the two will make the Palestinian position in any upcoming negotiations even more stubborn in defending Palestinian rights.

The events of the past few months leading to the vote for the new prime minister has shown that Palestinians are interested in both the fight for freedom and the end of occupation while at the same time wishing to have a normal transparent government that is in tune with the daily needs of the Palestinian people.

Both leaders will have to learn to live with each other, politically, and find the correct formula that combines Palestinian yearning for democracy and rule of law while at the same time allowing for a strong negotiating position in the final status talk about the borders and the nature of the future independent Palestinian state. And while many have been trying to assess who are the winners and losers in this particular struggle between the two Fatah leaders, some are saying that the real winner is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmad Qureei (Abu Ala’a) who has succeeded in giving himself and his council the role of deal maker in this and in any future Palestinian government.

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