The capture of an Israeli soldier in a raid by Palestinian militants from Gaza has diverted attention from a less dramatic but, in the long run, more consequential leadership struggle within the Palestinian Authority.
In recent weeks, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has won near-universal praise for his strong leadership with his challenge to Hamas to accept a “prisoner’s initiative” as Palestinian national policy. The initiative, drawn up by Palestinian leaders from all political parties who are imprisoned in Israeli jails, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would implicitly recognize the state of Israel—something the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has so far refused to do.
The man who for long had been described dismissively by Israel’s political establishment as a “featherless chicken” and politically irrelevant seems to have transformed himself into an admired leader. He has done this by challenging Hamas to climb down from its dogmatic refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy or face a national referendum on this issue.
Until quite recently, it was believed that Palestinians would repudiate Hamas’s rejectionist stance in such a referendum, an outcome that would enable Abbas to call new elections that presumably would topple Hamas and bring Fatah, Abbas’s political party, back to power.
There was never any realistic basis for this expectation. Recent polls indicate that the referendum is unlikely to be approved, and a Fatah electoral victory in a face-off with Hamas is even less likely.
But all of this is beside the point. The real test of Abbas’s leadership is not whether he can bring about the downfall of the Hamas-led government, which is Israel’s goal and would also greatly please Washington, but whether he can restore a sense of national unity to a deeply divided Palestinian population, and in the process re-establish his own credibility.
That credibility was damaged not by the nastiness of Israeli invective directed at Abbas by Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but by Abbas’s failure to clean the soiled stables of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority following his election in January 2005.
Not only was Abbas unable or unwilling to replace corrupt and dysfunctional members of Fatah’s leadership with a younger generation of Palestinians who demanded reform and democratic governance; he made matters worse by placing large numbers of Palestinians on the payroll of an already bloated bureaucracy as he sought to improve Fatah’s chances in the recent legislative elections that brought Hamas to power.
Abbas now has an unusual opportunity to redeem that record. However, he will only worsen it—and his own reputation—if he uses this opportunity for narrow political gain and the return of discredited Fatah colleagues to governmental positions they abused so egregiously in the past.
Instead, his first goal should be the forging of national unity between Hamas, Fatah and the other political parties. Without such unity, Palestinians do not have a prayer of overcoming Israeli designs on Palestinian territory.
The undermining and ousting of Hamas would do nothing to improve chances for the resumption of a peace process. Olmert may reward Abbas with one or more show meetings, but these will produce no results. Indeed, they are likely to drive prospects for peace-making beyond everyone’s reach, for Palestinians will see the rejection of their democratic choice of Hamas as a collaborationist act that ended what chances may have existed for Hamas’s transformation into a more moderate political force.
Hamas itself will have been driven back to relying solely on violent resistance, ending whatever hope may still exist for a renewal of a peace process.
Abbas’s second goal should be the establishment of a Palestinian government of experts—people of integrity and experience—backed by a political coalition that gives Hamas’s victory in the recent democratic elections its proper due.
Finally, Abbas must cooperate with Hamas in persuading the Palestinian Legislative Council to adopt long-delayed reforms.
Whatever the implications of Hamas’s ascendancy, it has created an unusual opportunity for a thorough reform of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions. Hamas clearly has no vested interest in defending the status quo.
It is the achievement of these goals in the national dialogue that Abbas, Hamas and other Palestinian parties are now engaged in—and not the undoing of what international observers have called the most honest and democratic election in the Arab world—that holds the only hope of advancing the Palestinian national cause, and for gaining deserved respect for Abbas’s leadership.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.