Abbas brings fresh ingredients to negotiations

Two U Middle East experts agree that newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas brings certain aspects to the peace talks between Israel and Palestine that Yasser Arafat lacked.

Abbas was sworn in as Palestinian president Jan. 15 after he received 62.3 percent of the Palestinian vote, according to The Associated Press. He succeeds Arafat, who died Nov. 11 of undetermined causes at the age of 76.

Peter Sluglett, professor of history in the Middle East Center, said he sees the change of leadership as “the most proficient circumstances we are likely to have for a very long time,” and a prime opportunity for all parties if the Israelis take advantage of the fresh circumstances.

“Arafat is probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Palestinians, and Arafat’s death is one of the best things that could happen to them,” Sluglett said.

While Abbas does have advantages, it would take more than a change in leadership to warrant a drastic improvement in the deep-rooted conflict, said Ibrahim Karawan, director of the U’s Middle East Center.

Helpful characteristics

Sluglett cited even the most basic difference in physical appearance as one factor that could benefit Abbas when meeting with the United Nations. Abbas wears a suit as opposed to Arafat, who was known for wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb to meetings.

“Arafat was always thinking of the Palestinian public and therefore, this made him look like some sort of extremist outside,” Sluglett said. “[Abbas] is someone who goes by the same rules as the rest of us, at least he looks credible. The world community will think, ‘Ah, here’s someone we can deal with.'”

Karawan said he sees more vital characteristics that the new leader will bring to the negotiations.

Among these are Abbas’ more pragmatic, measured approach and his ability-as a former prime minister-to observe Arafat’s mistakes and learn from them.

“The thing that may be going for [Abbas] is the fact that he’s not Arafat,”

Karawan said. As such, he will not be confined by the legacy of being a historic leader as Arafat was.

Another factor aiding Abbas’ outlook is the fact he is known for being a clean figurehead within a corrupt Palestinian Authority and will likely market himself as a more open person running a more institutionalized system, Karawan said.

Sluglett added that Abbas is less likely to pander solely to the Palestinians, as Arafat tended to do.

“Arafat was always thinking of the Palestinian public and this made him look like some sort of extremist outsider,” Sluglett said. “Abbas cares about the public, but the public knows he’s not Arafat and doesn’t blame him for not being Arafat.”

While Abbas possesses all these unique characteristics, Karawan said it would take more to solve the deep-rooted conflict.

“It is one of those situations where one man, by himself, may not prove to be totally adequate,” Karawan said. “If I were to predict, I would say the chances of his stagnation-if not outright failure-may be greater than otherwise.”

But, he said, there is no way to know how Abbas will treat the conflict until several factors can be determined.

First, what type of leader is he? Second, what will Israel and United States bring? Third, what will the rejectionist Palestinian front bring?

These factors will require Abbas to perform what Karawan called “a complex balancing act.”

The balancing act

It is important for Abbas to remember his own constituency while negotiating with Israel and the United States.

Karawan said Abbas might actually face more danger from the Palestinian public if they perceive him as giving too much, or endorsing the Americans and Israelis.

However, Abbas is facing pressure from Israel to begin dismantling, or at least contain, the structure of organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa brigades.

Israel may link the pace of their withdrawal from Gaza to the pace of Abbas’ success in dismantling the infrastructure of these militant groups. If so, this may tempt Abbas to engage in more decisive action against these organizations.

“This is what people are worried about in the Palestinian society,” Karawan said. “They worry that it may lead to some kind of civil war.”

The biggest dilemma occurs therein: How does Abbas steer clear of civil war by pleasing the Palestinian people while appealing to Israel enough to prompt an incremental withdrawal from Gaza?

“One side is asking him to move against organizations of that kind, and these organizations are launching attacks against Israelis at the very same time in order to create a climate that would frustrate the attempt of a settlement,” Karawan said.

He added that the United States and Israel could help Abbas in this complex act.

“There has to be some willingness to cooperate on the part of the Americans and the Israelis for economic assistance, for releasing funds that the Israelis had withheld before, for releasing political prisoners and for the things that could create confidence over a period of time,” Karawan said.

In addition, no matter how promising it may be, the move toward peace needs to be part of a calculated, gradual approach.

“All the time, [Abbas] must keep an eye on the two levels: the inside and the outside, the domestic scene and the international scene,” Karawan said. “He must use moves that he makes on one of these levels to enhance his position on the other.”

The underlying point, Karawan said: “There is no easy solution.”

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