Abbas will need more than his likeability to follow Arafat

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future