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From the September 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 9)

The Palestinian Press and the Road Map

Abbas Takes Charge

Peter Valenti, World Press Review contributing editor

Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (R) speaks with reporters after meeting with Morocco's King Mohammed VI, July 28 (Photo: Abdelhak Senna/AFP-Getty Images).
The major militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad commenced a cessation of activities against Israel, or a “cease-fire,” on June 29 that is to last for three months. The cease-fire, orchestrated by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, was quickly followed by Israeli troop pullbacks from positions in the northern Gaza Strip and Bethlehem and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Despite mutual suspicion, both sides see these as positive steps along the U.S.-drawn road map to peace, though the Palestinian press gave much more significance and attention to the role Abbas has played in engineering the cease-fire and concurrent political maneuvers.

Editor and columnist Hasan al-Batal praised Abbas’ efforts in his July 10 op-ed in Al-Ayyam, saying that the new prime minister has quickly displayed his intelligence and political savvy. However, two days earlier in the same paper, journalist Hasan Khader pessimistically predicted that it would be downhill for the Palestinians from here. Ultimately, he argued, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would sabotage Abbas’ achievements, as he almost succeeded in doing by the attempted assassination of Hamas spokesman Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi just when Abbas was trying to negotiate with Hamas.

Numerous Palestinian writers said that Abbas will gain a political advantage if he succeeds in reining in the two militant groups. They argued that this explains why various Israeli officials, such as Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, have tried to co-opt Abbas’s achievement by claiming Israeli credit for “ending the Intifada.” Pro-militant writers have written op-eds reminding both Israel and Abbas that the cease-fire is temporary and conditional, claiming that it does not signal the militants’ weakness but rather is a conciliatory gesture to quell internal Palestinian dissension. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, a regular contributor to Al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote on July 9 that the recent U.S. announcement of direct funding to the Palestinian Authority is designed to establish government-administered social services to rival those Hamas provides—evidence that the movement still has potent grass-roots support.

Other long-standing intra-Palestinian political tensions have surfaced. In a heated meeting of Fatah’s Central Committee on July 8, Abbas found both his political tactics and approach with the Israelis under sharp criticism. Amid the chorus of attacks, Abbas withdrew his membership in the Central Committee and wrote two letters, the first of which tendered his resignation as prime minister. Both President Yasser Arafat and the committee rejected his resignation.

The July 10 Al-Quds al-Arabi editorial argued that Fatah’s leadership resents what it sees as Abbas’ attempts to make decisions without their input. In his July 10 Al-Ayyam op-ed, al-Batal derided Fatah’s “review authority,” adding that in this first ministerial crisis, Abbas has challenged these self-proclaimed “guardians.” On the same day, in an op-ed in Al-Hayat al-Jadedah, Adli Sadiq, the Palestinian undersecretary of planning and international cooperation, wrote that Abbas is confronting the peculiarities of Palestinian-style democracy. Sadiq argued that Palestinian policy-making is hobbled by two distinct phenomena: the inscrutability of the decision-making process as numerous parties and interests exert influence, and the inherent weaknesses of a stateless government.

In a July 10 Al-Quds al-Arabi op-ed, Bashir Musa Nafi said that the fundamental rift is between old-guard PLO members and a clique, long led by Abbas, that is uncomfortable with the violent attacks associated with the Intifada. Furthermore, despite Abbas’ prominent role in the cease-fire negotiations, confusion reigns over who actually deserves credit for it—the prime minister, Arafat, or the former Fatah West Bank leader and reputed head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Marwan Barghouti, who currently sits in an Israeli prison on charges of organizing militant attacks on Israelis.

In light of this political maelstrom, the logic of Abbas’ second letter is more evident. It reportedly stated that if his resignation was not accepted and if Fatah couldn’t present a feasible alternative political plan, the Palestinian authorities must more effectively rally around him and his policies.

Nafi—who, like other Palestinian analysts, considers Sharon’s motives for supporting the road map highly suspect and believes that Sharon hopes it will cause a civil war in the Palestinian community—expressed admiration for Abbas’ strategy. He explained that the prime minister, who studied the Oslo peace process’s pitfalls, would not promise to secure land ceded by the Israelis until he had a cease-fire from Palestinian militants. Otherwise, he would set himself up for failure. Nafi concluded that, unlike Arafat, Abbas will not make debilitating concessions in a rush to finalize a peace agreement.

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