April 7, 2005
Abbas Tries to Prove His Strength
Four months after he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is fighting for his political life -- and possibly for the survival of the peace process.
Last week, Abbas fought off militants' attempts to challenge the authority of the Palestinian government and dismissed a number of senior officers who had failed to prevent the challenge.
Abbas forced the resignation of West Bank security chief Ismail Jaber after riots aimed at the P.A. president ended with shots fired at his Ramallah headquarters.
Abbas took the move primarily to prevent the possible collapse of his rule, but it also is an advance payment to President Bush, with whom he was scheduled to meet later this month. According to the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan, the many P.A. security bodies should be whittled down to three.
Jaber had been commander of the national security force, which with 15,000 police officers is the largest security body in the West Bank. Israel recently has exerted a great deal of pressure on Abbas to get rid of Jaber, considered too weak to cope with terrorists.
Avi Dichter, head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, recently met with Abbas and expressed Israel's concern at the P.A.'s failure to reform the security services, disarm militant groups and stop terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. Even in Jericho and Tulkarm, the two cities Israel already has handed over to P.A. control, the Palestinian Authority is refusing to implement promises to disarm specific wanted terrorists and restrict their freedom of movement.
As a result, Israel has delayed handing over additional cities to P.A. control.
Abbas issued a presidential decree over the weekend mandating the forced retirement of thousands of police officers over age 60, cutting both the size of the armed forces and his budget. Yet in a confrontation with the core of his opposition, the Al Aksa Brigades, the terrorist militia of his own ruling Fatah party, Abbas backed down.
In an apparent initial attempt to restore law and order, P.A. officials last week ordered six terrorists who had found shelter at the Mukata, Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah, to give up their weapons, join the P.A. security forces or leave the compound.
Instead, the men instead went on a rampage. They were joined on March 30 by other brigade members, who fired shots at the Mukata and in the streets of Ramallah and damaged businesses and restaurants that senior P.A. officials frequent.
Abbas was in the Mukata during the shooting, but escaped unharmed under heavy security. Similar incidents were reported in other places in the West Bank, especially in the Bethlehem and Tulkarm regions.
Some Al Aksa terrorists threatened to violate the truce declared Feb. 8 if the Palestinian Authority continued to pressure their men.
After the March 30 riots, Abbas ordered a crackdown on the militants. He fired the Ramallah commander, Younis al-Hass, whose men did nothing to stop the gunmen.
But he did not go further, and ultimately he agreed to a deal allowing the terrorists to keep their weapons. That showed Abbas still has a long way to go on implementing Palestinian promises to take the weapons from all but authorized members of the P.A. security services.
The riots, and Abbas' failure to cope with them, intensified the P.A.'s internal crisis. To protest Abbas' deal with the terrorists, the commander of the general intelligence forces in the West Bank, Tawfik Tirawi, resigned March 31, charging that his fellow security commanders were not doing enough to restore law and order.
As the commanders met with Abbas, Tirawi told him, "The commanders around you are not telling you the truth. I cannot work when others do not do their job and when the Palestinian resident is deprived of the necessary feeling of security."
Abbas turned down Tirawi's resignation and Tirawi eventually withdrew it.
P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei condemned the March 30 riots and called on Palestinians to abide by the law.
"These acts serve the interests of those who are against our people," he said. "We must all respect the rule of law."
But Qurei's own relations with Abbas have deteriorated considerably in recent months. Ehud Ya'ari, Arab affairs analyst for Israel's Channel Two television, reported over the weekend that Qurei was keeping information from Abbas in order to weaken the president.
According to Israeli intelligence, senior figures surrounding Abbas are compartmentalizing him, reporting to him in a distorted manner or ignoring his orders altogether.
Abbas might name Jibril Rajoub, the P.A.'s national security adviser, to Jaber's old job as head of all West Bank security services. Can Rajoub meet the complex challenges of the job?
Rajoub, 52, was Yasser Arafat's longtime national security adviser until the two had a falling out and Arafat fired him.
He is considered a pragmatist in terms of relations with Israel and is feared on the Palestinian street. If anyone can confront the militants, it is Rajoub.
Only if Abbas and Rajoub succeed in stabilizing the situation will the Palestinians be able to demand that Bush pressure Israel to speed up the timetable for handing over additional Palestinian cities and dismantling West Bank roadblocks.
Palestinian officials have claimed time and again in recent weeks that it has been difficult to gain popular support for anti-terrorist measures because Israel is dragging its feet on relaxing security restrictions.
They also have been discouraged by Israel's plan to expand the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to effectively link it to Jerusalem from the east, inconveniencing Palestinians traveling between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.
Israel rejects Palestinian claims that P.A. security forces have been so crippled by Israel's anti-terror operations during the intifada that they now can't act.
However, after four years of intifada, power on the Palestinian street flows from the barrel of a gun, and for many, especially the young, weapons are a major source of respect, authority and livelihood.
The militants are feared but at the same time are still popular, considered by many Palestinians as the heroes of the intifada.
Meanwhile, the fundamentalist terror group Hamas grows stronger each day. Abbas has to take drastic measures to take the P.A.'s reins, and Israel has to prove to the Palestinians that they can gain more with Abbas at their helm than anyone else.
If there is no progress, Hamas may turn out to be a decisive political force in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer. Then P.A. officials may rue their failure to confront the terrorist groups during the 12 years since the Oslo peace process began.