RAMALLAH - A political leader's decision not to seek re-election usually triggers fervent discussion about potential heirs. Yet, President Mahmoud Abbas's withdrawal from the presidential election scheduled for January 24, 2010, has produced nothing of the kind in Palestine - not because of a dearth of leadership or a reluctance to mention possible successors, but because the presidency of the Palestinian Authority has become irrelevant.
Abbas's withdrawal comes at a time when Palestinian frustration with the political process has rendered suspect the entire rationale behind the PA, established in the mid-1990's, following the Oslo Accords. The main component of the PLO's agreement with Israel was a five-year interim period during which negotiations were expected to lead to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Sixteen years later, it has become clear that the Israelis have made no effort to come to terms with Palestinian national aspirations - and that no effective effort has been made to convince them. The number of illegal Jewish settlers in Palestinian areas has doubled, leaving Palestinians increasingly convinced that negotiations are a waste of time. Many recall the preferred strategy of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: "I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for ten years, and in the meantime we would have reached a half-million people in the West Bank."
Initially, the five-year interim agreement called for the election of a Palestinian Legislative Council and an executive leader whom the Israelis wanted to call a "chairman," spurning the word "president." Because Arabic makes no distinction between chairman and president, the Israelis accepted use of the Arabic word rayyes in the official English text.
Palestinian refugees in exile and other Palestinians living in the diaspora were not allowed to vote. East Jerusalem Palestinians were allowed to vote only at the post office or at booths outside the city limits.
Abbas's withdrawal merely confirms the obvious. Another such election in the near future, including the one set for January, is unlikely to occur, mainly owing to the continuing rift between the PLO and Hamas, which controls Gaza.
Hamas participated in the 2006 legislative elections, which followed Israel's military withdrawal from Gaza. But for years Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups have rejected the Oslo process, on the grounds that free elections under Israeli occupation would be absurd. Hamas has the power to stymie the vote and has indicated that it would do so.
Moreover, Abbas has not given up his positions as head of the PLO and leader of its biggest faction, Fatah, which remains in control in the West Bank. Abbas cannot resign from his post for the foreseeable future, lest the Hamas-backed speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council take over. At the same time, no PLO official is likely to seek the presidency without Abbas's approval, which he will withhold until a new mechanism for ending the occupation is found.
The PLO will likely gain much from Abbas's decision, because it de-emphasizes the status of the PA president and raises the profile of his post as chairman of the PLO's executive committee. That shift, in turn, clears the way for a generational change in leadership - and, more importantly, a transition to post-Oslo politics.
The PLO's old guard - men like Yasser Arafat and Abbas, who led the liberation organization from exile and returned home with the Oslo Accords - dominated the Palestinian political landscape up to now. After they depart the scene, Palestinian leaders who were born under occupation and spent time in Israeli prisons will most likely fill the vacuum.
The most prominent such figure is Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the student movement at Birzeit University in the 1980's and one of the main organizers of the First Intifada, resulting in his deportation by Israel in the late 1980's. In 2002, he was arrested and sentenced to a long prison term on charges that he led the Second Intifada, which had begun two years earlier, and ordered some of its military attacks.
Despite being imprisoned, Barghouti was recently elected to Fatah's central council, and a number of others who spent time in Israeli prisons will join him. One is Jibril Rajoub, imprisoned for 19 years and deported in the First Intifada, only to return to lead one of the security services after the PA was established. Another is Mahmoud Dahlan, also an ex-prisoner and former security official, although the loss of Gaza to Hamas, for which many Palestinians hold him partly responsible, has dimmed his leadership prospects.
Finally, there is Nasser al-Qudwa, the former PLO representative at the United Nations. Qudwa is a dark-horse candidate to succeed Abbas - a possible compromise figure who has never been directly involved in security or military activities. For many Palestinians, Qudwa, a soft-spoken, multi-lingual nationalist (and Arafat's nephew), presents an acceptable face for Palestine locally and internationally.
The coming months will reveal whether we are, indeed, witnessing the dawn of the post-Oslo era in Palestinian politics, and whether a new leader, with new supporters, will be required to revive the Palestinian cause. Whoever emerges on top will have to present an effective strategy to end four decades of military occupation and bring about a truly independent state that a majority of Palestinians can embrace.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.