Abbas will need more than his likeability to follow Arafat

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The Independent Online

Not long after the start of his brief and fairly unhappy premiership under Yasser Arafat in 2003, Mahmoud Abbas presented Israel with a clear and, to his mind, wholly sensible proposal.

Why not release 500 Palestinian prisoners who had served sentences of 10 years or more and had been jailed for militant actions undertaken before the Oslo agreements?

Facing stiff resistance from Ariel Sharon's government, Mr Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, pressed his case. Not only had the prisoners served real time, but if Israel said no it would be defying logic by refusing to release men who had been jailed for carrying out orders given by the very men - including Mr Abbas himself - with whom it had since signed accords.

Mr Abbas had plenty of reasons to take the prisoners' issue seriously. His own house had been stoned after badly crossed wires had unravelled what he had thought had been a similar deal over prisoners with Benjamin Netanyahu at the time of Wye accords in 1998. But much more than that, the releases would have entrenched the ceasefire he had negotiated with Hamas and other factions and was fighting to maintain. And it would have given him a tangible achievement to help protect his authority from being eroded by Arafat. But to his deep dismay, the Israelis were adamant. The story, told yesterday by an experienced Palestinian negotiator who has worked closely with Mr Abbas, illustrates at least two points about the man who was confident yesterday of becoming the second president of the Palestinian Authority.

One is that he is a man with an abiding belief in the power of reasoned argument. Where Arafat was at once passionate in manner and, at least according to his critics, a master of ambiguity when it suited him, Mr Abbas is someone who has always eschewed the limelight, is famously cool and dispassionate in style.

But the other point is that the success of his presidency over the months ahead will depend as much on how Israel, and behind it the international community, and particularly the US, responds to his installation as president, as on his own abilities.

His honeymoon may not be long. His credentials at 69 as the most senior national figure in the PLO have helped his election. But they will help him much less - and may even hinder him - if the generation of Fatah activists who grew up politically when he and Arafat were in exile in Tunis, become impatient of him. Whereas Arafat was acknowledged as a leader long before he was elected, Mr Abbas's election is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of building the same authority among Palestinians. If he has not shown himself capable of securing tangible progress for them by the time Fatah holds its sixth congress - and internal elections - in early August, his authority could come under challenge.

A frequently recycled fact about Mr Abbas is that in his youth he once wrote an academic study in Moscow questioning the numbers killed in the Holocaust. He has since said he would never have done such a thing in later life. Indeed, he was one of those in the 1970s who most actively pursued contacts with Israelis - mainly on the left.

Apart from his one unrepeated mention of the "Zionist enemy"-after a family of six were killed by a tank shell in Gaza - he has eschewed anti-Sharon rhetoric and made it clear he wants negotiations with him. Some senior Israeli officials now admit they could have done more to help him during his premiership; one question is how far this will be translated into practice.

Mr Sharon's disengagement from Gaza will dominate the politics of the region for much of the year. Assuming that Mr Abbas can negotiate a new ceasefire in the meantime, he will badly need confidence-building measures on the other side - not least the easing of closures and checkpoints which impose such a burden on the day-to-day lives of Palestinians.

But far more than that, he will need political and diplomatic momentum if his authority is to be strengthened. Israelis and Palestinians who think he may be ready for a "final status" deal that reneges on the principle of a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital almost certainly underestimate his convictions.

But that itself means that he will come under intense pressure to agree to an interim "solution" of the sort envisaged in stage two of the road map - one that would last way beyond his or Mr Sharon's lifetime and which all the signs are the Israelis would like but he would not.

But to keep up that momentum would need the forceful engagement of the US - and perhaps its British ally. Mr Blair told those travelling back to London with him after he met Mr Abbas last month that he liked him and that he was a "real politician". He will need more than likeability and the art of politics if he is to overcome the daunting obstacles that lie ahead.