Abbas and prospects for peace in the Mideast

Abbas and prospects for peace in the Mideast

The Bergen Record

By AREF ASSAF

UNDOUBTEDLY, the recent presidential elections in the Palestinian territories are historic, but not only for their apparently transparent and trouble-free process or large turnout of Palestinian voters.

What occurred last week was historic because it is a rarity that an occupied people are permitted by their military occupier, Israel, to vote for a president of a state that does not exist, to vote for a president whose mandate is derived not from the people who voted for him but rather from outside forces that will have a suffocating control over all aspects of his power to improve their lives and realize their dreams.

It is also significant to note that only 15 percent of the world’s Palestinians did actually participate in the elections and, more significantly, more than 3.5 million Palestinians woke up the next day still languishing under the 37-year old Israel military occupation.

While his mandate is being taken to cover the destiny and rights of all Palestinians, only those under occupation were allowed to participate in the voting process. Excluded from having any voice were more than 4 million Palestinian refugees in Arab countries neighboring Palestine, people long abandoned by their “sole legitimate representative,” the PLO. Why have all those in the world who have funded and supported these elections remained absolutely silent and complicit in this massive exclusion?

It is clear how much the Palestinians desire peace and good government, but after hearing the glowing, yet often patronizing, clichés about “Arab democracy” that have been bandied about in the American media recently, the fact remains that Palestine can never experience true democracy while it remains under occupation.

Many of those who voted Abbas into office are those who obtain patronage from the Palestinian Authority in return for their loyalty. Others may have voted for him as a measure of desperation in the hope that the declared support for Abbas from Washington, Israel and many Western and Arab capitals would lead to some sort of a settlement, which would put an end to their ongoing suffering.

The wealth of propaganda that the death of Arafat must be an opportunity and that the only well-placed person to harvest it must be Abbas must have tempted many Palestinians to give him another chance, as they gave Oslo a chance 12 years earlier.

Despite the upbeat rhetoric from the world community, Palestinians understand the reality that newly elected Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to deliver miracles: the real power for peace still lies with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his No. 1 supporter, President Bush. This will become evident as Israel has frozen contact with Abbas following the killing of six Israelis Jan. 13. Israel demands the end of Palestinian violence, and not its murder of Palestinians or illegal occupation of their lands, be the precondition for peace.

Abbas will need a massive amount of support if he is to reach these goals. Moreover, it would be disastrous, were Israel to now solely concentrate on demanding an end to the violence from him.

If the goal of all the Israeli government’s brutality is security, as claimed, and if it is really to end Palestinian violence against Israel that has killed more than 900 Israelis since 2000, then there might be an easier way to go about it; a way that might curb the violence rather than encourage more of it. If the Israeli government could see the violence from another perspective, that is, as resistance to occupation and not simply as unprovoked attacks on Israel, then a solution would be easier to see.

Change the culture of occupation to a culture of co-existence, halt the settlements, allow the Palestinians to live in an independent state and do it all sooner rather than later. If all this sounds too hard, start by easing a few of the harsh dehumanizing measures that make life such a misery and only serve to fuel militancy.

For Palestinian violence towards Israel to end, which is the hope of Abbas, the majority of Palestinians, Israel and indeed most of the world, Abbas will need a lot of support. Abbas will only be able to get the militia’s support to end the violent resistance to the occupation if Israel restrains its heavy hand that has killed more than 3,400 Palestinians in four years and injured thousands more.

The new president’s plan to use non-violent means to resist the occupation of Palestine has been warmly received by Palestinians and world leaders, as it should be. However, to be successful in his goal, Abbas will need help. Real help, not rhetoric, from the international community and from Israel’s government.

Aref Assaf is president of the American Arab  Forum of New Jersey. Send comments about this column to oped@northjersey.com.