Abbas 1 year on — security chaos, political uncertainty

RAMALLAH — One year after his election, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas faces an increasingly uncertain future with the demise of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a spiralling security crisis.

The 70-year-old Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president by a comfortable margin on January 9, 2005, to succeed the late Yasser Arafat on a ticket vowing to restore order, end corruption and create a Palestinian state.

Perhaps his greatest achievement after formally taking up his duties on January 16 was to convince the principal armed Palestinian groups to observe, more or less, an informal truce in anti-Israeli attacks.

He also introduced tentative reform to the myriad of badly organised wings of the Palestinian security service, but ultimately he has been largely powerless in the face of the armed anarchy pervading the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The truce, which officially expired at the end of 2005, ensured that Israel’s withdrawal of its army and settlers from the Gaza Strip over the summer did not take place under fire.

But with the euphoria of the pullout over, armed groups, mainly those loyal to Abbas’ crisis-ridden ruling Fateh party have engulfed the territory in shootings, raids against public buildings and a spike in foreign kidnappings.

The rampant chaos has provided a gloomy backdrop to parliamentary elections scheduled on January 25, despite repeated rumours of a possible delay.

Fateh faces a ballot box showdown with the powerful Islamist movement Hamas, riding high after good performances at local council elections across the West Bank and Gaza last year.

Abbas had intended to use the Gaza pullout as a springboard to exact Israeli pull backs from the much larger occupied West Bank, multiplying his visits overseas in order to rally support.

But he has been hamstrung by Sharon’s insistence of making any further progress conditional on the Palestinian Authority dismantling armed groups. “What Abbas has achieved during his first year in power is minimal compared to the programme he announced after his election,” conceded analyst George Giacaman, director of the Mowaten institute for democracy studies. He believes “certain circles” within Fateh and the Palestinian Authority are to blame for Abbas’ failure to assert control over the security situation and implement the entirety of his promised reforms.

“Abbas had good intentions but Sharon as well as various Palestinian parties put obstacles in his way,” he said.

Deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Khreisheh similarly charges that “certain president Abbas associates within the Palestinian leadership” have handicapped his margin of operations.

“I believe Abu Mazen is an honest man but some of his colleagues in the leadership are trying to compete with him. That never happened in the Arafat era because no one would dare think of standing up to him.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat lays all blame with Israel for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process since Abbas’ election. “The Sharon government has not helped us and has given nothing to President Abbas, giving the impression he has achieved nothing on the political front,” Erekat said.

Since his election, Abbas met Sharon twice, once in February at a peace summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh and again in June at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

Erekat said, however, it was “too soon” to talk about a possible breakthrough should Sharon, fighting for his life in an Israeli hospital, prove at the end of his career.

“We are not dealing with individuals but with a government elected by Israelis,” he said.

Trying hard to put a positive spin on Abbas’ first year in power, Erekat said he had enjoyed some successes at home.

“President Abbas embarked on several reforms in the last year, particularly modernising the judiciary, reorganising the diplomatic corps and pensioning off officers from the security services,” he said.

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