Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected PNA president, will hardly find it easy to carry his flock together in his negotiations with Israel for a Palestinian state. He eminently runs the risk of replicating the 'Arafat imbroglio', if the talks with the Israeli fail to acquire pace, given the unrest of the Palestinians on all sides of the spectrum, with the failure of Oslo Agreements and increasing economic hardships and social insecurity.
The challenges before the Mahmoud Abbas is two-pronged, internal and external. From within, he faces opposition from Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade ' groups that do not believe in any 'peace negotiations' and have, therefore, boycotted the presidential elections. While the Hamas 'observed' the presidential election day, commemorating the death of its member, the master bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, who was killed by Israel nine-years with a cell phone bomb. And two days ahead of the elections, the Brigade claimed involvement in killing an Israeli soldier and wounding four others in a shooting in northern West Bank. These acts are meant to send out signals to Abbas that his opposition to 'militarisation' of the intifada, have not gone down well with these organizations.
Hamas, the face of political Islam in West Bank and Gaza, considers the 'whole land of Palestine' as waqf promised to the Muslims and consequently indivisible. It had condemned the Oslo Accords as Palestinian 'capitulation' in the face of 'Zionist entity' and boycotted the 1996 Palestinian elections for the president of PNA. Hamas leaders argue that the basis for such negotiations denies Palestinian rights and is an expression of weakness. Their argument is based on the belief that the militarily weak is weak in negotiations, and that the militarily strong is strong in negotiations. It therefore incorporates political violence as a strategy for the struggle against Israel.
The al-Aqsa Brigade, a splinter group of dominant PLO faction Fatah, emerged in 2000 in the wake of the second intifada. It believes in carrying out random acts of violence against Israeli targets, both military and civilian, would force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, in the same way the latter did from south Lebanon. The Brigade's relentless violent activities against Israel have invited continuous retaliatory attacks from Israel, disrupting Palestinian lives in West Bank and Gaza.
The external change remains negotiating with Israel on crucial issues such as the status of Jerusalem dismantling of settlements, and right to return of the Palestinian refugees. In the past, all talks and negotiations have broken down on these issues, with Israel showing disquieting fastidiousness in holding on to its position.
Israel considers Jerusalem as its eternal capital and will not consider ceding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. The Jewish settlements in West Bank and Gaza have been a growing phenomenon, which did not halt even during the first few years of the implementation of the Oslo Accords. The heavily guarded settlements criss-crossing Palestinian villages in the West Bank have marred the contiguity necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian state. While Israel considers the return of the Palestinian Arabs dislocated in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 to Israel, a factor that would disrupt the demographic balance of the state and overturn its Jewish character; Palestinians considers this as an inalienable right of the refugees. The crucial Camp David II talks between Arafat and Barak broke off on the issue of settlements and status of Jerusalem led to the outbreak of the current intifada.
Thus the task facing Mahmoud Abbas is tough, though not wholly insoluble. If he is able to rein in these violent factions by persuading them to sign a truce, as he had done before during his premiership eighteen months ago, he would strengthen his bargaining position vis-'-vis Israel. Any further, acts of violence on the part of political Islamic groups and the Brigade will invite more virulent retaliatory attacks from Israel, thus undermining the new president's position. Moreover, any move against these groups, on the insistence of Israel, would invite accusations that the Authority is collaborating with Israel and 'hurting its own people'. The public opinion built in recent months for improved relations with Israel, may also dissipate in the process, if violence and counter-violence continues.
Mohammad Abbas wears the proverbial crown of thorns. He runs the risk of being caught in 'Arafat-kind' whirlpool, where the senior leader ended up endorsing violence Palestinian violence to maintain continued support of his people and effectively burning bridges with Israel and the US on self-determinations talks. The Palestinian president would have to hasten his acts, to restrict Hamas and Brigade from violence against Israel. This would not only restore confidence on the other side, but would also give him the requisite legitimacy to work on other critical issues.