Event: Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the Post-Arafat Era
Dr. Dajani examined the roles of Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas in the evolving tapestry of Palestinian politics. He considered both Arafat's place in shaping the Palestinian political movement, and Abbas' record and challenges in moving forward towards a functioning Palestinian state and ultimate peace with Israel.
Dajani faulted Arafat for his leadership style, accusing the former Palestinian president of failing to see the dangers posed by rejecting Oslo and not forming a truly democratic Palestinian Authority (PA) with checks and balances and a constitution. Dajani criticized Arafat's unwillingness to share power or retire from it, as well as the cronyism of his administration and the "old guard" political figures with which he surrounded himself. "Arafat thrived on creating crises," Dajani asserted, and his approach gave the Palestinians visibility, but not good governance. Arafat refused to create a concrete strategy towards a democratic, secular future—and as a result, Dajani believes, he left no lasting impression.
By contrast, Dajani saw Abu Mazen as a figure largely free of these faults: one who embraces democratic ideals, is willing to reform, and has no intention to stay in power for life. Thus far, Abbas has proven a very effective leader in his few months in office. He managed an orderly transition to power and successful, transparent elections. He dealt with Palestinian militant groups and negotiated a cease-fire. He has improved relations with the U.S., EU, and Arab states. Perhaps most importantly, he has met the Israeli conditions for reopening peace negotiations: ceasing incitement, unifying the PA security apparatus, and carrying out comprehensive reforms.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, Abbas faces a number of very serious challenges in his efforts to achieve a functioning Palestinian state, Dajani said. Abbas must deal with Israel, and particularly Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon. Dajani suggested that Sharon constitutes a particularly intriguing problem because of the upcoming Israeli elections (in 2006). As a Likud politician, Sharon weakens his electoral chances by making concessions to Abbas. Therefore, instead of supporting Abu Mazen, Sharon criticizes him and makes unreasonable demands. Most notably, Sharon now requires that Abbas declare war on terrorism and "dismantl[e] the terror infrastructure" (i.e. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc.)—a task that Dajani asserted would require civil war among Palestinians. Abbas must also manage the transfer of power in Gaza—making sure that meaningful governance and rule of law is established there after the Israelis withdraw.
Abbas must also deal with internal, Palestinian problems, Dajani observed. Most crucially, Abbas must deal with the "Old Guard," the entrenched, and largely corrupt, Fatah bureaucrats that were Arafat's inner circle. Dajani advocated replacing the Old Guard with fresh faces—the "Young Turks" of Fatah. The Young Turks could help Abbas fight corruption and reform Fatah and the PA, Dajani believes—and without "fresh faces" in government, Abbas' hands are tied. Abu Mazen must also deal with the upcoming parliamentary elections (currently scheduled for July) and the potential rise of Hamas to political prominence. Furthermore, Abbas must oversee the writing of a Palestinian constitution that helps establish the rule of law and embodies democratic principles such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, and term limits.
Dajani concluded by advocating that the U.S. could help by assisting the Palestinian state in establishing the rule of law and jump-starting its tattered economy. The U.S. also should work to hold Israel to its agreements and prevent further Israeli settlement of the West Bank. He suggested that Abu Mazen's sincerity and insistence on achieving statehood through peaceful means had created a "dim hope" for a final settlement in Israel/Palestine, but Abbas needs support to have the ability to deliver on his promises—or that hope will fade away.
Drafted by Evan Hensleigh