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Abbas Faces Challenges As He Prepares to Take of Helm of Palestinian Authority


Mahmoud Abbas, who declared victory in the race for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday, wore a bandage on his finger during the election campaign. Abbas was injured in a work accident: As he waved through his car window to cheering crowds during an election stop, a security guard mistakenly pushed a button and the electric window went up, catching his finger.

It was a minor price to pay for a campaign in which many had feared for Abbas’ head, not his fingers — and his finger injury is nothing next to the headaches he will face after Sunday’s election.

Abbas’ internal challenges are just as menacing as his fragile relations with Israel.

For one, he has limited powers: Abbas begins his career as Palestinian Authority president with a limited budget and many internal rivals waiting for him to fail.

Palestinian society is torn among conflicting currents — religious and secular, left and right, internal splits within each political camp and too many local chieftains focused on their own limited interests.

“The burden on his shoulders is rather heavy,” Faisal Horani, a Palestinian writer, said in an interview with Ha’aretz, “but under the Israeli occupation, he does not have the necessary tools to cope with the responsibility.”

“I already feel sorry for him,” said Nazmi Al-Juabi, a history professor at Bir-Zeit University in the West Bank and one of the signatories of the “Geneva Accord,” an informal peace proposal formulated in 2003 by Israeli and Palestinian public figures.

Abbas will need to transform himself into a national leader. Given the heritage of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, that’s no easy task.

Abbas will have to transfer the balance of power from the Palestine Liberation Organization — an organization that includes most Palestinian factions, including refugees abroad — to the executive branch of the Palestinian Authority.

In other words, he will need to upgrade the Palestinian Authority into a state-in-the-making with an effective government after the past four years of intifada violence have undone the strides the authority made during the years of the Oslo peace process.

The opportunity is there for thorough changes: The current P.A. Cabinet, which is made up of 25 ministers, will resign immediately after the elections.

So far, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has kept his status as second in command. He and Abbas see eye to eye on relations with Israel but their personal relations have been strained.

Other key figures such as Finance Minster Salam Fayyad, Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Sha’ath and Saeb Erekat, who is in charge of negotiations with Israel, are likely to go along with Abbas and not pose difficulties.

Internal politics pose still another problem. Fatah is still the strongest party in the PLO, but it has gone through a number of crises in recent years as a result of tensions between the “Old Guard” leadership and the younger generation, whose most prestigious figure is Marwan Barghouti, serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail for his role in terrorist attacks.

The presidential race pushed aside the internal Fatah struggle, but it is likely to be renewed now.

“If there is no change in the internal composition of Fatah, the movement may split this year,” Cabinet Minister Kadura Fares warned.

Trying to win the hearts of the younger generation, Abbas announced recently that internal Fatah elections would be held no later than August.

Abbas also faces the challenge of reforming the security forces: Internal rivalries in the Palestinian Authority allowed for the rise of local chieftains and a near-total breakdown in public order. One way to mend the situation will be for Abbas to rein in the number of competing security organizations.

The Palestinian Authority currently has 15 security organizations that often duplicate each other, and that together have an estimated 65,000 people on payroll.

Though Palestinian leaders often claim they don’t have the manpower to crack down on terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the huge security forces give the Palestinian Authority one of the highest ratios of security personnel to citizens in the world.

Abbas will need to unify the disparate security organizations into three or four large ones. That still isn’t ideal, but would be a far cry from the present state of near-anarchy.

Arafat used to encourage internal rivalries to strengthen his own position by preventing anyone from amassing power and emerging as a potential rival. Abbas doesn’t have Arafat’s charisma to repeat these tactics, nor would they serve his interest.

But he will need to take into account several strongmen who may prove troublesome if their political and professional aspirations are not fulfilled.

Among the key players are Rashid Abu Shbak, commander of the preventive security force — basically, the secret service — in the Gaza Strip; Jibril Rajoub, former commander of preventive security in the West Bank and presently Abbas’ national security adviser; Tawfik Tirawi, head of military intelligence; and Abdel Razek Majaideh and Haj Ismail, Gaza Strip and West Bank commanders of the Palestinian national security forces, the largest P.A. military force, with 40,000 troops on its payroll.

One old-time supporter of Abbas is Mohammed Dahlan, the former preventive security head in the Gaza Strip. Dahlan currently is “unemployed” but still wields considerable influence in Gaza, and has a good chance to be incorporated into the new government.

Hamas is still the main opposition force. Its electoral power is estimated at 20 percent, but its power on the street is sufficient to make Abbas’ life miserable.

If Abbas wants a cease-fire agreement with Israel, he will need to reach an understanding with Hamas — though the Palestinian Authority is committed, under international agreements like the Oslo accords and the “road map” peace plan, not to reach an understanding with Hamas but to eradicate it.

Abbas said during his campaign that he would never crack down on terrorists. Though Israel and the United States are likely to give Abbas time to consolidate his power, it’s not clear that they will allow the Palestinian Authority to continue to reap diplomatic benefits before it makes good on its most basic peace process obligation.

“We came to the polls with no prejudice,” said Sheik Hassan Yousef, leader of Hamas in the West Bank. “Let’s wait and see what he will do, and then we shall formulate our standing.”

In the absence of radical Hamas leaders such as Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi — both killed last year by Israel — and after four years of largely futile intifada, Yousef’s approach may become the predominant Hamas policy.

Though Hamas didn’t endorse the elections and most likely will continue to oppose negotiations with Israel, it may reach an understanding with Abbas, provided that it is given a greater role in decision-making.

The Palestinian Authority suffered considerable economic damage in four years of intifada. Though it has received billions of dollars in foreign aid, much of it went to terrorism and corruption, leaving the authority with a meager $19 million in its bank accounts and needs that exceed $135 million, according to Fayyad.

The hope is that in a stable post-election era, international donors will again open their wallets.

Another major challenge is widespread corruption in the civil service. For the past eight years, various reports have shown that senior P.A. figures have stolen millions of dollars in public funds.

Al-Juabi of Bir-Zeit University said Abbas needs to grant the judicial system greater powers and freedom from external pressure to allow a strong hand against corruption and stabilize the rule of law.

Most analysts predict that given the complexity of the challenges he faces, Abbas can’t win on all fronts. It’s expected that he will prefer to stabilize the internal Palestinian situation, even at the cost of postponing possible progress in negotiations with Israel.

Abbas’ next electoral challenge will be parliamentary elections scheduled for June. By then he must be strong enough to make sure that the Hamas opposition is contained.

Will the gray leader meet the challenge? On the face of it, chances are slim — but precedent gives reason for optimism.

When Anwar Sadat took over as Egyptian president after the death of the flamboyant Gamal Abdel Nasser, he also was described as a weak successor — but eventually emerged from Nasser’s shadow to become one of the legendary leaders of the Arab world.

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