Palestinians, Israelis weigh future without Abbas

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Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) visits the Halhoul Cultural Forum November 8, 2009 in Hebron, West Bank. Abbas announced he doesn't want another term as president in an election scheduled for January which has potentially deadened Mideast peace prospects and opens the way to a succession battle that could play into the hands of his rival, the militant Hamas.

Palestinian leaders are struggling with the aftermath of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he does not intend to run for re-election in a vote scheduled for January. There is no clear-cut successor and the uncertainty has rattled both Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians this week are marking the fifth anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, and many say it is the bleakest period since the leader's demise. Obama administration efforts to restart peace talks have floundered and both Israelis and Palestinians are calling the situation a crisis.

Adding to the uncertainty, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week he does not want to seek another term in elections called for January because of the stalemated peace process. Abbas took over from Arafat following his death and was greeted by Israeli and U.S. officials as a pragmatic leader.

"The Israelis always said that Arafat wasn't a partner for peace. Then Abbas came and tried to implement all of the Palestinian commitments. But Israel is trying to kill Abbas' project," says Rabiha Diab, minister of women's affairs in the Palestinian Cabinet.

Behind the familiar rhetoric of blame, there is a real sense of hopelessness among Palestinians who say Abbas' announcement was the act of a desperate man.

Abbas had been banking on an Israeli agreement to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. The Palestinian leader said without that, there could be no resumption of peace talks.

The Obama administration at first seemed to back the Palestinian position, with special envoy George Mitchell pressing Israel to agree to a complete settlement freeze.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government would agree only to a temporary and partial freeze. Then, on her recent visit to Jerusalem, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to signal a change in the U.S. position, praising the Israeli offer as "unprecedented."

Diab said that was the final straw for Abbas, whose decision not to seek re-election was announced just days later.

"We were not surprised to see what happened. We understood the meaning of this step. I think Abbas is a bold, courageous person. He wanted to send a message to the Israelis, the Arabs and others but most importantly to the Americans who had created optimism in the heart of the Palestinians," she says.

If the elections happen as planned on Jan. 24 — and that is far from certain — Palestinian observers say there is no clear successor in sight.

"Abbas represented moderation in Palestinian society despite all the criticism against him. Abbas engaged in negotiations from the start of his presidency. So how can the Palestinians elect someone else who talks about negotiations when negotiations have failed to get started?" says Abdel Nasser Najjar, editor of Al-Ayyam newspaper, which is affiliated with Abbas' Fatah party.

"The option of negotiation goes with Abbas; therefore, the people will elect someone who will give them another option," Najjar says. That may mean voting for a candidate from more radical groups, like the Islamist militants of Hamas who rule in the Gaza Strip, he says.

The Palestinian political chaos hasn't helped the Israelis either.

According to Israeli media reports, U.S. officials delayed setting a date for Netanyahu's meeting with President Obama until the Israeli leader was already on his way to Washington. The meeting was set for Monday night at the White House.

Monday's headline in the newspaper Haaretz called it a "semi-snub" that makes Netanyahu "look as if Obama threw him a bone. The prime minister of Israel was humiliated before all."

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political analyst, says Israel's increasing diplomatic isolation — it has had recent problems with Turkey, Egypt and Spain — will only increase if there is no movement on the peace process.

"I think Israel is on the verge of becoming a pariah state," Ezrahi says. "As long as we don't create the borders between us and the Palestinians, without the Palestinians having a piece of their land under the sun in which they can govern themselves, I think we are prescribing for ourselves a future of endless bloodshed."


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