Mahmud Abbas (file photo)
Newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas will face a seemingly impossible challenge in his administration, one that largely plagued him in 2003 during his short four-month term as prime minister. Abbas must consolidate the vast Palestinian security services that have been rift with rivalries for years. He must meet the ever-growing demands of his public to address corruption within the Palestinian Authority structure, and provide space for the new guard to participate in the political arena. Abbas will also face the challenge of reviving the stagnant peace process with Israel and revive an economy wrecked by the four-year intifada. And, he must do it quickly.
Palestinians placed their hopes in Abbas at the polls on 9 January. In surveys conducted by two leading Palestinian institutions earlier this month, Al-Najaf University's Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies, and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), respondents said that they believed Abbas was the most qualified candidate to address these issues. When asked in the PCPSR poll (http://www.pcpsr.org), published on 2 January, which of the seven candidates was most qualified to reach a peace agreement with Israel, more than 71 percent of respondents said Abbas. He scored more than 20 percentage points higher than his main challenger, Mustafa Barghouthi, on competence issues including the candidates' ability to protect the right of return for Palestinian refugees, prevent internal infighting, enforce law and order, and improve economic conditions. When asked which candidates they would cast their ballots for, 65 percent of respondents said Abbas, while 22 percent said Barghouthi. Official election results reflected similar percentages, with "The Washington Post" reporting preliminary figures on 10 January giving Abbas 65 percent and Barghouthi 21 percent.
Abbas, having secured a broad margin of support, will need to move quickly to turn his victory into concrete changes on the ground for Palestinians. The greatest challenge will come in consolidating some 12 security services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The security apparatus has been plagued by ineffectiveness for years on every level, with West Bank and Gazan forces vying for power within the Palestinian Authority structure. In addition there is a growing rivalry between Palestinian security forces, particularly in Gaza, and militias, who exert immense control over refugee camps. Palestinians will look to Abbas to restore the rule of law.
Although Abbas has beat out all other candidates by a wide margin, his candidacy was built on contradictions that will need to be addressed. For example, he has called for an end to the armed resistance and, at the same time, said he would not crack down on Palestinians who attack Israeli soldiers, civilians, and settlements. The style, as "Daily Star" editor Rami Khouri pointed out on 5 January, is essentially the same formula promoted by Yasser Arafat: speaking of a negotiated peace with Israel while at the same time calling for eternal resistance and a return to Palestinian homes occupied since 1948. As Khouri points out, the Palestinian people need more that a perpetuation of failed policies "based on contradictory positions, empty rhetoric, and hesitant leadership."
This is Abbas's challenge: to perpetuate the stagnancy of the Arafat regime, or turn the page and face the tough issues that have plagued the Palestinian community for decades. Whether or not he can rise to the challenge will depend upon his level of support on the ground. Never a charismatic or popular figure, Abbas failed as prime minister in 2003. Much of his inability to effect change was related to Arafat's hold on power, but with many Palestinians having declared the "road map" for peace dead two years ago -- largely because it did not bring change to their daily lives -- Abbas must find another way. That path will largely be obstructed by Hamas and other Islamic groups that oppose any peace with Israel.
Observers should also not be fooled by the seemingly overwhelming support at the polls for Abbas. Palestinians hedged their bets with him. He is man with broad international support, viewed as a man with whom the United States and Israel could forge a real working relationship, and one who has enough clout at home to bring the internal situation under control. But he is also one of Arafat's men, and he will need to demonstrate that he can bring an end to the corruption and cronyism that has plagued institution building, and revitalize the political system by bringing in the so-called new guard. Asked how they would vote if jailed leader Marwan Barghouthi -- considered a member of the "new guard" -- ran in the elections, respondents to the PCPSR poll answered: 43 percent for Marwan Barghouthi, 39 percent for Abbas, and 9 percent for Mustafa Barghouthi; hardly overwhelming support for the new president, even within his own party, as both Abbas and Barghouthi are members of Fatah. If given the choice between Abbas, Marwan Barghouthi, and Hamas leader Mahmud Zahhar, 37 percent said they would vote for Abbas, 29 percent for Barghouthi, and 19 percent for Zahhar.