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Make or break time for President Abbas

June 2, 2014 at 9:51 am

On the eve of the swearing-in of his new government, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems headed for the biggest test of his political career. Not only has the Israeli government barred ministers from the Gaza Strip from travelling to the West Bank for the occasion, but it has also launched an international campaign to boycott and threaten the new government. This is a huge test for Abbas; it is also a test for the international community, which faces a moment of truth: is it ready to support the Palestinian right to national unity or not?

Quite rightly, Ramallah has dismissed the call by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a boycott of the new government. Presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh explained that the world community had encouraged and welcomed the steps taken by President Abbas to unite the Palestinian people. Besides, he has given ample assurances that the new government will be one that is independent of both Fatah and Hamas, comprised solely of technocrats. After reaffirming his commitment publicly to all the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Mr Abbas went even further to address Israeli concerns by pointing out that he regards ongoing security cooperation with Israel as “sacred”.

In reality, the formation of a national unity government is just a tiny step in the healing process for Palestinian society. Reconciliation between rival parties is one thing but it would be meaningless if it does not transcend the political arena to reach every facet of social life. Can Abbas last the course? Many doubts persist. For one thing, he has a record of caving in to Israeli and US pressure; there are already worrying signs of déjà vu in all of this.

Nothing underscored this more profoundly in recent days than the Palestinian president’s decision to abolish the ministry of prisoners’ affairs which was formed by the late Yasser Arafat in 1998. At the time, it is believed that Arafat did this largely in response to pressure from the Palestinian public, many of whose sons and daughters were incarcerated in Israeli jails. It is worth recalling here that, since 1967, around 20 per cent of the whole Palestinian population has been detained at one time or another, a total of 750,000 people.

Naturally, therefore, Mr Abbas’s decision to dismantle the ministry has provoked outrage not only from Hamas but even from within his own Fatah movement. Across the board the decision has been seen as unnecessarily provocative, not least because it undermines Arafat’s legacy. Worse still, the move is seen not as an attempt to rebuild the Palestinian Authority, but to placate Israel.

Furthermore, implicit in the move is an acceptance of the Israeli view that the prisoners are “terrorists” and not freedom fighters or political prisoners. For the thousands of prisoners’ families throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this will remain unconscionable forever. President Abbas is walking into a high-risk confrontation with his people on the one hand and his Israeli interlocutors on the other. Sooner or later, he will have to choose between Palestinian rights and Israeli dictates.

Hardly a day passes without a member of the Netanyahu cabinet demanding the total annexation of the West Bank, including Jerusalem with all its Islamic and Christian sanctuaries. The most recent was a call by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s judicial consultant, Ellen Baker, for the adoption of the recommendations of the Levy Committee Report which does not recognise the West Bank as occupied territory or the settlements as illegal under international law.

Back in January 2012, Netanyahu commissioned retired Supreme Court of Israel Justice Edmund Levy to head a committee to examine the issue of settlement building in the West Bank. On July 9, 2012, the Committee, published its report, concluding that Israel is not an occupying power, but has sole sovereignty rights over the Palestinian territory.

In the coming days, Israel will, no doubt, step up its pressure on Abbas by calling for an international boycott of the technocrat unity government, perhaps of the type imposed on the Gaza Strip for the past 8 years. Moreover, it will use the spectre of Muhammad Dahlan to threaten Abbas with an imminent coup. This stands to be counterproductive, as it will leave Abbas with no other option but to forge ahead with the national reconciliation project whilst simultaneously purging Fatah’s ranks of Dahlan loyalists. The latter process, in fact, has already begun. Although the EU has indicated that it will work with the newly-formed unity Palestinian government, there is no doubt that it too, like the PA, will come under enormous pressure from Israel.

Meanwhile, it is not clear whether the US will support Netanyahu’s outlandish demands. Some officials in Ramallah believe that by inviting prime minister designate Dr Rami Hamdallah to Washington the Obama administration is contemplating recognition. Officials apparently need his personal assurances about Palestinian recognition of Israel. If only to expose US deceit, Dr Hamdallah must take the opportunity while he is in America to demand Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ right to live in freedom in their own land.

As for President Abbas, he must rest assured that he enjoys the unqualified support of the vast majority of nation states, unlike Netanyahu, who relies solely on American political muscle. Like the late Yasser Arafat, however, this may well be his last showdown for which he may pay with his life. In the end, though, he stands a good chance of emerging with his honour and legacy intact.