Abbas may give up Palestinian Authority post, but not power

A man waves a Palestinian flag in Bilin in the West Bank, where some are urging leader Mahmoud Abbas to reconsider his retirement threat.
A man waves a Palestinian flag in Bilin in the West Bank, where some are urging leader Mahmoud Abbas to reconsider his retirement threat. (Bernat Armangue/associated Press)
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 7, 2009

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may follow through on his vow this week not to run for reelection. But that hardly means he'll fade from the limelight.

Even if his term expires in January -- and there is little certainty that a vote for his successor will be held as scheduled -- Abbas holds three other titles that would continue to make him the most influential figure in Palestinian political life and the most important leader in any peace initiative with Israel.

In the complex political bureaucracy that the Palestinians have erected in their drive to establish a state, the Palestinian Authority is only one branch of a structure that includes the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, the dominant Fatah party that Abbas heads, and a PLO-chosen titular head. That title is also held by Abbas.

In announcing Thursday that he did not wish to run again for the Palestinian Authority presidency, the 74-year-old Abbas made no mention of abandoning those other posts, leading political analysts to speculate that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who remained in control even as his various terms of office expired and he issued threats to quit.

Abbas "could stay in a position of power for a very long time," regardless of whether he ever runs again for president of the Palestinian Authority, said Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based lawyer and former member of a Palestinian group that negotiated with Israel. "He is not gone."

In saying that he would decline to run for reelection, Abbas cited frustration with the lack of progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. He also said continued Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank -- and U.S. acquiescence to it -- was diminishing the chances of statehood.

On Friday, modest groups of Fatah members and others marched in Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank to voice support for continued leadership by Abbas. Local Palestinian media continued running news headlines about various organizations or politicians discouraging him from retirement.

The level of concern over Abbas's possible departure speaks not only to his role as a key player in the region, but also of the leadership vacuum that could result if he steps aside.

He is regarded as a moderate and a chief advocate of nonviolent negotiations with Israel, a leader who has sanctioned the buildup of the U.S.-supported Palestinian security forces credited with a marked reduction in the West Bank of violence against Israelis.

The security situation there stands in sharp contrast with that of the Gaza Strip, where the ruling Islamist Hamas movement and other militant organizations have launched thousands of rockets in recent years at southern Israeli towns, helping trigger an intense three-week war with Israel in the winter.

The departure of Abbas, some Israelis and Palestinians worry, could translate into a hardening of Palestinian policy on any talks with Israel.

"It's definitely an Israeli interest, as it is an American, Western, Palestinian one, that there be a moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership," Israel's deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, told the Associated Press.

Still, many Israelis suspect Abbas isn't going anywhere soon. As a result, analysts say, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unlikely to offer any concessions in a bid to engage Abbas and restart talks with Palestinians.

"The question is, is it part of a ploy?" said Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University. "Everybody will wait and see what happens after Jan. 24," when Abbas's term is up. Elections are supposed to take place by then, but they are unlikely because of the continuing rift between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and the inability of competing parties to campaign in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In a State Department briefing Friday, spokesman Ian Kelly hinted that the United States, which considers Abbas a key figure despite recent troubles in its relationship with him, expects the Palestinian leader to remain active.

"We would expect him to continue to play a role," Kelly said. "He has been committed to our shared goal, to a two-state solution, to creating a better future for his people, and we hope that he will continue to play that kind of productive role."

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