Palestine after Abbas?

RAMALLAH – A political leader’s decision not to seek re-election usually triggers fervent discussion about potential heirs. Yet, President Mahmoud Abbas’s withdrawal from the presidential election scheduled for January 24, 2010, has produced nothing of the kind in Palestine – not because of a dearth of leadership or a reluctance to mention possible successors, but because the presidency of the Palestinian Authority has become irrelevant.

Abbas’s withdrawal comes at a time when Palestinian frustration with the political process has rendered suspect the entire rationale behind the PA, established in the mid-1990’s, following the Oslo Accords. The main component of the PLO’s agreement with Israel was a five-year interim period during which negotiations were expected to lead to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Sixteen years later, it has become clear that the Israelis have made no effort to come to terms with Palestinian national aspirations – and that no effective effort has been made to convince them. The number of illegal Jewish settlers in Palestinian areas has doubled, leaving Palestinians increasingly convinced that negotiations are a waste of time. Many recall the preferred strategy of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: “I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for ten years, and in the meantime we would have reached a half-million people in the West Bank.”

Initially, the five-year interim agreement called for the election of a Palestinian Legislative Council and an executive leader whom the Israelis wanted to call a “chairman,” spurning the word “president.” Because Arabic makes no distinction between chairman and president, the Israelis accepted use of the Arabic word rayyes in the official English text.