Challenges Facing Newly-Elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
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GWEN IFILL: So what kind of mandate did the Palestinian people give Abbas in yesterday’s vote? And what challenges does he face going forward?
For those and other questions we’re joined by Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Matthew Silver, a professor at Emek Yezreel College in Israel, and a visiting professor at the University of Hartford. And Aaron Miller, a former senior State Department negotiator on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He’s now president of Seeds of Peace, an organization that teaches teenagers about conflict resolution.
Shibley Telhami, how significant would you say this victory was or was it significant at all?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It was significant. It’s important actually that he won by only 62 percent. It means that it was somewhat contested. It’s far better than having someone in authoritarian countries winning 99 percent of the vote.
I would have liked to have seen even more contest, particularly with Marwan Barghouti in there. I think Abu Mazen would have succeeded. The reason why he could have beat Marwan Barghouti probably with a smaller margin is that his basic success in this election was to reenergize his base. Once he got the support of the Fatah Organization, the PLO, it meant that he can succeed.
In fact, I think the real story here, aside from getting a public mandate, is that he energized these institutions that are going to be essential for him if he is going to confront Hamas. Fatah Organization has been on the defensive. It’s been divided. It’s been at a stalemate. Hamas has been rising.
This has energized them and brought them together. The good news is that that means that when he is going to try to fulfill his promise of no violence, he’s going to have their backing. That’s essential. The bad news of it is that if he’s going to do reform, these are the institutions he needs to reform.
GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller, you’ve been following this process for some time. What is your sense of what the good or bad news was to use Shibley Telhami’s formulation of the results yesterday and whether this is actual news considering the fact that we’ve come to know Mahmoud Abbas or at least the Palestinians have over some time?
AARON MILLER: I think the good news, Gwen, is clear. In the freest and fairest elections ever held in the Arab world against the backdrop of an Israeli occupation, four years of non-stop Israeli- Palestinian conflict and in the wake of the passing of the man who essentially dominated the Palestinian national movement for 50 years, Palestinians and Fatah in particular orchestrated a remarkably stable and fluid transition.
And I think Palestinians ought to be proud because this carries tremendous significance for their own politics. That said, I think the mandate is going to be a limited one. I suspect that Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, will face two major problems which he’s going to have to overcome. One is acquiring the kind of legitimacy to actually take the decisions that Shibley has identified.
You know, you can gain legitimacy through symbols, through being a historic leader. You could gain legitimacy through elections.
But in this case it seems to me legitimacy will come from one source, and that is his ability to produce results, to produce good governance, to produce a process which improves the lives of Palestinians on the ground, economically, and ultimately to produce a process that ends the Israeli occupation through a process of serious negotiations. And those are extremely difficult challenges that he confronts in the months ahead.
GWEN IFILL: Matthew Silver let’s try to take that a piece at a time. Is there credibility; is there legitimacy in the outcome of this election?
MATTHEW SILVER: Well I think the election first of all I think that most Israelis would agree that the fact that it was a relatively competitive election was good and that the Palestinians are beginning a process of a democratization which is in Israel and the world’s interest.
On the other hand during the campaign I think we witnessed a series of mixed messages by Mahmoud Abbas. He was certainly between a rock and a hard place throughout the campaign which began with militants firing warning shots in the mourners’ tent three days after Arafat’s death.
On the one hand and it’s an extremely significant step and I don’t want to belittle it, Abbas has dislodged Fatah from Arafat’s legacy of terror by criticizing the past four years of violence against Israelis.
On the other hand, being hoisted on the shoulders of militants throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, giving certain kinds of criticisms to the Qassem missile fire against Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and in Israelis towns within the 1967 borders there were forms of criticisms that came out from Fatah on that.
But on the other hand to say that he’s not going to go to the brink to disband the militias which could bring absolute ruin to this process, that was a series of mixed messages.
You asked me to break down the points. The substantive disagreements, of course, right now between Israel and the Palestinians have to do with borders and it has to do… and it has to do with the status of refugees. Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, made a series of remarks throughout the campaign which were very problematic on those two issues.
On the other hand, in terms of short-term issues to getting the negotiation process started, the talk about the release of prisoners, the talk about the removal of roadblocks, those are issues that the two sides can focus on right now.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Telhami there seems to be an incredible amount of expectation which is now on Mahmoud Abbas’s shoulders.
People expect him to speak to the violence question; they expect him to speak to … keeping Hamas and Al Aksa and all these other violent groups at bay, and also to speak to establishing some sort of working relationship, jump- starting the peace process with Israel. Is that a lot on his plate?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The challenges are enormous. And in fact it’s in some ways troubling because when you look at it, we focused on the elections as if they were the answer. Elections are only a beginning. You have a new leader today who can start a process but the challenges for the Palestinians are still the same.
They still have the same challenges at home in Gaza, in the West Bank. They still have the same challenges in the negotiations with Israel. They still have the same challenges in trying to get the international community getting involved.
GWEN IFILL: They still for example want the right of return, something which Israel is not moving on.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: All the final status issues are still tough ones and in fact they’ve become more of an issue in the campaign. But what I want to say is that for now at least, everyone who is essential for this process is seeing an opportunity in this. The real question is whether they see a tactical opportunity or a strategic opportunity.
He obviously needs Sharon’s help. Without Sharon he can’t do it. Sharon in the end controls the army that’s in the West Bank and Gaza. In the end Sharon for now needs his help. We have a new Israeli government, clearly they’re trying to implement a withdrawal plan from Gaza.
They would much rather have a stable Palestinian partner who is cooperating in that withdrawal regardless of the strategic objective. The Bush administration wants to see success. But the question is whether that is only a short-term interest or whether they really see a profound strategic opportunity to compromise. I’m not sure of the latter.
GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller, let’s assume there are three characters in this drama. We have the Palestinians. We have Ariel Sharon and the Israelis and we have the United States. Using once again Shibley Telhami’s formulation, who among those three has the most to gain and who has the most to lose?
AARON MILLER: Well, I think the Israelis and the Palestinians for whom this is an existential conflict and for whom the consequences will be the most severe have the most to gain from the I think an historic opportunity to break through a four-year stalemate.
I do not believe that the time is right. Frankly there’s a paradox. It’s a good thing we don’t have permanent status negotiations underway between Israelis and Palestinians because neither Israeli nor Palestinian decision-makers have the public constituencies right now or the will to take those decisions but for the Palestinians and the Israelis the risks are the highest.
There’s another point that has to be made. And that is the role of the United States. I worked for the Bush — this Bush administration until January of 2003. And I think the key issue facing the president and Secretary of State Designate Rice is very clear.
Is the administration going to make this issue, the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, a priority? And this I think is the key question. It is in our interest to do so. It is clearly consistent with our interests in Iraq –
GWEN IFILL: What do you think is the answer to that question?
AARON MILLER: Well, the answer is this. You’ve got to overcome, it seems to me, the key obstacle that has prevented the administration from engaging seriously. And that is its fear of not being able to succeed.
It seems to me now for the first time in four years that you now have an opportunity with serious and sustained American involvement, working with both Israelis and Palestinians, to actually generate some successes on the ground.
You know there’s a great expression in life: Never ever, ever pray for anything you really don’t want. And for the last four years the Bush administration, together with most Israelis, prayed for Mr. Arafat’s passing. Well now he’s gone.
And the question is: will the Americans and the Israelis and Palestinians step up to the kinds of decisions that need to be made in order to take advantage of this new situation?
GWEN IFILL: Matthew Silver, assuming that Ariel Sharon has to step up, that the new legislature that’s been seated has to step up, that his cabinet has to step up, what is it that Ariel Sharon should be praying for now in this process or is?
AARON MILLER: Ariel Sharon is praying for an end to terror. He’s praying for a… and the Israelis that he represents are praying for an ultimate settlement that will give security to Israelis so both sides can get on with their lives.
The key thing it seems to me right now in terms of thinking about a long-term solution to this is that in contrast to many different periods in the past, both sides coming out of this very bleak period the last four years of violent violence and despair, the feeling that there was no light in the tunnel, had felt that they didn’t lose from this conflict. 35 percent of the Palestinians who were surveyed in recent days say they feel that they’ve won this recent struggle against Israel.
Israelis, I have to say, find that kind of perception problematic because of the use of terror. But the important thing is the Palestinians right now don’t feel that their back is against the wall because of diplomatic pressure.
The Israelis on the other hand I think there is a feeling that we muddle through this, that some of the responses that we’ve come up with are obviously not the best of all possible worlds solutions, the security fence and so on.
But Israel doesn’t feel that it’s losing right now either. That and the fact that you have a Palestinian leader who has renounced Arafat’s legacy of terror does give some substantive hope to both sides and I think Ariel Sharon can work on that and there’s one other element if I may add one more word.
The fact that Shimon Peres returned to Israel’s political arena today and is now the number two in man Israel really reflects that Israel and Sharon as a whole, the basic orientation of the country is toward peace.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s assume for a moment, Professor Telhami, that Abu Mazen or Mahmoud Abbas, as he’s known, actually gets along better and can actually speak to Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, we assume, and that he gets along better with him, he’ll be invited to the White House to speak President Bush and the United States negotiators, is there a danger for him in being embraced too closely by either of these parties?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand I think it is clear that some Palestinians actually like the fact that he can talk to the Israelis and the Americans. That’s an asset. They want the U.S. to be involved. They want to talk to the Israelis.
On the other hand, they are worried that he’s going to be too compromising, that he’s going to sell out. And they don’t want to sell out on the core issues.
In fact I think the secret to Abu Mazen’s success and still getting the support of Israel and the U.S. despite the campaign that was difficult and getting support from the constituencies, was that he made a decision that the core issue in which he will protect the relationship with Israel will be that he’s going to renounce violence.
And he stuck with that in the campaign. He didn’t get away from that. But on the other hand he was going to protect the interests of his constituency by taking tough positions on the negotiations. And that obviously is what he is going to pursue for now. The question now is can he succeed.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you all.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: A pleasure.