Friday, December 18, 2009

What's Really Going on in Palestinian Politics: Springtime for Abbas

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By Barry Rubin

There’s a new trend worth noting in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority (PA): a sense of satisfaction. While the Western media generally reflect the rather false-front public relations’ campaign waged by the PA—bitter, frustrated, victimized, and eager for peace—that’s not what’s really going on right now.

Mahmoud Abbas’s government has to weather some difficult politicking along the following lines:

--He has extended his own term in office indefinitely and cancelled January 2010 elections without receiving much criticism from within the PA. After all, Hamas won’t let any balloting happen in the Gaza Strip and who knows which side might win a fair vote?

--The PA has been rounding up Hamas activists and keeping security on the West Bank while—with a lot of help and some pressure from Israel—preventing cross-border attacks.

--The economy is doing well with relative prosperity on the West Bank, though this could collapse in hours if the PA let’s violence reappear.

--Abbas has contained intensive criticism from his colleagues about his being too “soft” in his dealings with President Barack Obama.

--He has worked out a way to refuse negotiations while blaming it on Israel.

--No matter what the PA does international media coverage, support from Europe, and a lack of criticism from the U.S. government seems assured.

There are plenty of things to be pleased about even though the peace process is dead, there’s no realistic prospect of a state, and Hamas looks set to govern the Gaza Strip forever.

The media angle is especially amusing. Abbas can reject Obama’s demand that negotiations resume without a single adjective of criticism while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is regularly said to be “defying” Obama because he only invoked a total freeze on non-Jerusalem construction. You can’t buy publicity like this.

But never overstate the importance of image. What’s really true—though often misunderstood in the West—is that a no war, no peace option suits the PA just fine right now. There is a question of whether hot-heads among Abbas’s colleagues, Hamas sabotage, or some accidental event will set off a new confrontation. Yet that doesn’t seem too likely in the short- to medium-run.

Finally, while Fatah and the PA can’t wean themselves—indeed, they aren’t even trying—from a basic strategy whose main goal is destroying Israel some day, that doesn’t mean they can’t get along with Israel on a current basis. Behind the scenes, things aren’t so bad.

Indeed, when Abbas speaks privately, he is likely to spend much of his time attacking Hamas and urging higher sanctions on Iran. He knows who his real enemies are, even if most Western observers take him at his (public and propagandistic) word.

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