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The task facing Mahmoud Abbas

By Peter Beaumont

The new Palestinian chief. Mohmoud Abbas faces an impossible balancing act.

THE ATTACK by Palestinian gunmen on Gaza's Karni crossing last Thursday, in which six Israelis died, and Israel's response seem wearingly familiar. But while a year ago it would have been possible to say it was simply part of the numbing cycle of violence, inviting inevitable retaliation, this time the violence has a different and more subtle meaning.

The attack, delivered less than a week after the election of 69-year-old Mahmoud Abbas as the successor to Yasser Arafat, has already been disastrous for attempts to start a fresh dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians ahead of re-adoption of the road map to peace and Palestinian statehood.

If there had been some faint hope only seven days ago that more than four years of the intifada were slowly coming to an end, the Karni attack has signalled deep problems ahead.

Karni is an indication of how divided Palestinian society is. Thursday's attack was a brutal message to Mr. Abbas and all those who hope to bring the intifada to a conclusion by those Palestinians who most benefit from its continuation; a message from a younger generation that has thrown itself into the violent struggle for statehood that it will not be `sold out'.

Mr. Abbas has shown in his public statements how difficult is the line he must walk: between maintaining Palestinian ambitions, including at least a symbolic refugee return, and reflecting the weariness of many Palestinians with the conflict and a desire to move, however slowly, towards some kind of a settlement.

Israelis used to say of Arafat that he would say one thing in English and another in Arabic. But Mr. Abbas' position is more difficult. No matter how much Israelis hated Arafat towards the end (and how much many Palestinians distrusted him) he remained a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Mr. Abbas, despite his long involvement in the struggle, does not yet command the same loyalties or affection.

The risk is that he cannot control the struggles in Palestinian life that have long threatened to break out into something more menacing: between the secular and the religious; between pragmatism and the glorification of a pointless violence; between its vast and youthful population who have grown up in the West Bank and Gaza, and an ageing leadership. It is these divisions that will be in Mr. Abbas' mind as he travels to Gaza for ceasefire talks with the factions to defuse the first crisis of his presidency.

Which leaves one of the most serious questions unanswered. Confronted with attacks such as that at the Karni crossing, does he have the ability to challenge those who would rather continue with the armed struggle — Hamas included — and reduce the level of violence against Israelis sufficiently for Israel to act?

It is a moot point. Israel has made it clear that, if the road map is to proceed, Mr. Abbas must move against militants when they launch attacks; Mr. Abbas' response to this latest attack will determine whether he is regarded as a serious partner. In the aftermath of Karni, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered a cessation of all contacts initiated with Palestinian leaders since Arafat's death. The message to Mr. Abbas is clear. Unless he can deliver a hudna — a unilaterally declared ceasefire by all the factions — the troubling logic is of inter-factional violence within Palestinian society itself, an internalisation of violence unlikely to trouble Israel.

And the aftermath of Karni leaves a critical question: how much of a reduction in violence must there be for Israel to respond with confidence-building measures on its own side? While there is an acceptance on the Israeli side that the kind of attacks that have characterised the intifada — including suicide bombings and rocket attacks — are unlikely to end at a stroke, it is clear that a reduction over some months will not be acceptable. Instead, Israel has made clear that it will judge the seriousness of Mr. Abbas as a partner for peace in the light of what he can achieve in the first few weeks after his inauguration.

Framed in that context, Karni is a chilling warning to Mr. Abbas of how little time he has to make a genuine impact and how difficult it will be.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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