With a patient realpolitik, not to mention the tacit approval of Israel and the United States, Mahmoud Abbas is inching toward the Palestinian leadership.
A poll of West Bank and Gaza Strip residents released Sunday found that a plurality of Palestinians, 41 percent, support Abbas' bid to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president -- a coup, considering the dour, 69-year-old PLO veteran's single-digit showing in the polls until recently. The presidential election is scheduled Jan. 9.
Abbas' popularity was in part due to default, after firebrand Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for murder, dropped his own potential run for the top office Nov. 26. Political analysts attributed Barghouti's decision to fears within Fatah that were the faction to be split by infighting, Hamas would take over the Palestinian street.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has had to perform a balancing act of his own. On the one hand, Sharon confidants say, he wants Abbas to win. Yet to back him too openly runs the risk of creating a puppet image for Abbas in the eyes of Palestinians. So Sharon made do, in an interview published Sunday, with vague encouragement.
We "will take all the necessary steps to enable them to conduct their elections with as little interference as possible -- by opening the roads and taking our forces out of their towns," Sharon told Newsweek magazine.
"When they would like to meet, we will meet," Sharon said when asked whether he was ready to meet with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
However, there was something more remarkable for its absence: Sharon's traditional insistence on a complete cessation of Palestinian terrorist and guerrilla attacks for peace talks to resume. He made do, instead, with urging the Palestinian Authority to stop anti-Israel incitement in its official media and in its schools.
It promised to be an easy enough task for Abbas who, as Palestinian Authority prime minister, halted such incitement until he resigned in frustration at the lack of progress on the "road map" peace plan.
But, as if spurred by Sharon's own rhetorical restraint, Abbas is now talking about a cease-fire -- not through a crackdown within the West Bank and Gaza but by consensus within the various Palestinian groups.
"Our goal is to cool down the whole situation, to stop all kinds of violence and terror," Abbas said in a parallel Newsweek interview. "We will ask the Israelis to stop their assassinations and house demolitions."
Abbas even took a personal risk during his affirmation at a recent Palestinian parliamentary session by seeking to assuage Israeli concern on the demand for a "right of return" for Arab refugees to land now in Israel.
Asked if this demand was irrevocable, Abbas told the magazine: "I didn't say that."
"I'm not talking about anything beyond the road map," he added. "According to the road map, there should be a just and agreed-upon solution for the refugees according to" U.N. Resolution 194, which grants Palestinian refugees who want to return the right to do so and calls for compensation for those who waive this right."
"President Bush said that there should be a two-state solution," he continued. "The Palestinian state should be independent, viable and contiguous."