- Like a veteran baseball pitcher who keeps opponents and fans guessing by mixing fastballs, curves and sliders, Mahmoud Abbas continues to perplex observers who try to read his intentions.
On the night of his election two weeks ago, Abbas spoke of peace while urging the Palestinians forward towards their “biggest Jihad”-a term that commonly means “holy war” in Arabic.
As Abbas completes his second week in both shoes of Yasser Arafat- both as President of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO-he has already amassed a formidable repertoire of mixed messages, among them:
- Calling for peace, while calling Israel “the Zionist Enemy”;
- Declaring a need to end “weapons anarchy,” while he and his top aides openly advocate attacking Israeli civilians and soldiers in “occupied territory” as acts of legitimate “resistance”;
- And urging an end to the “militarization of the Intifada” while offering jobs to the most militant “militarists” within the Palestinian community-the Islamic terrorists of HAMAS and the “Martyrs Brigade” of his own Fatah organization.
“Our stance is very clear,” asserted Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary appearing on Palestinian state television this week. “Any resistance has to be in Israeli-occupied lands,” said the dark-haired Abdul-Rahman who has been one of the two or three closest advisors both to Abbas and Arafat.
When the Palestinian state television anchorman seemed confused by the words of Abdul-Rahman, who regularly sits at the elbow of Abbas at public meetings, the cabinet secretary explained: “Within the occupied territory, we can use any means necessary to get Israel out.”
Mr. Abbas did not make any public comment scolding Mr. Abdul-Rahman for his remarks on Tuesday, and both Palestinian television and several Palestinian newspapers showed Mr. Abdul-Rahman sitting alongside President Abbas the following day at a public meeting in Ramallah.
Yet at the same time that such comments are aired on the Palestinian state media by Abbas’s closest aides, the state television has also called for citizens not to walk around with unlicensed weapons.
“We will not treat lightly incidents of citizens taking the law into their own hands,” a television anchorman said, reading an official announcement. His comments were read following a clash between rival militias in Gaza.
While such pronouncements about not firing weapons indiscriminately and about not carrying unauthorized weapons can certainly be seen as a step towards law and order, they are certainly not an unambiguous call to stop killing Israelis.
Still, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into towns and kibbutzim along the pre-1967 frontiers of Israel in the last few days.
On the other hand, there has been a much more partial let-up in the mortar and shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon and other Israeli officials have heaped great public praise on Abbas for trying to rein in Palestinian attacks, even as they privately believe that Abbas has done less than what is needed to stop the violence. But they are keeping their concerns quiet lest they be accused of undermining Abbas, who is often known by the affectionate nickname “Abu-Mazen.”
Indeed, many Israeli security experts see Abbas as a man walking a tightrope between various Palestinian factions and Israeli security needs. Israel does not want to be blamed if he falls off the tightrope.
From their point of view, the Palestinian officials around Abbas are not shy about blaming Israel ahead of time for any potential pitfalls.
“We expect Israel to stop violence against Palestinians in all its forms,” declared Negotiations Minister Saeb Arikat in an interview Thursday with Voice of Palestine radio in Arabic. Although Arikat could also have issued a call for Palestinians to “stop violence against Israelis in all its forms,” neither he nor any other Palestinian official has chosen to do so.
Instead he and Abbas have “condemned” Israel for killing one armed Palestinian terrorist and arresting two others this week who, according to Israel, were in the process of carrying out a terror attack on Israel from a base in the northern part of the West Bank. Neither Abbas nor Arikat challenged the accuracy of the Israeli assertion about the terror attack but rather the legitimacy of Israeli actions inside Palestinian areas.
Indeed, Abbas, Arikat and their colleagues have taken a testy and sometimes overtly hostile line against both Israel and the United States-both of which have transferred money and offered other concessions since Abbas’s election. However, Abbas and his colleagues have basically said “give us more and make it fast, or else.”
“We are concerned about a mutual ceasefire, and the Israelis have to answer us quickly,” declared Abbas, whose remarks were quoted in Friday’s (January 28) issue of the Fatah newspaper Al-Ayyam. There was no mention of the fact that Abbas and his security people have suffered delays in deploying their forces in Gaza and have not even begun to deploy in the West Bank where Israel has been making periodic arrests of suspected terrorists.
Even as US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have praised the Palestinian election as a tremendous achievement, and even as they have invited President Abbas to the United States, the Palestinian state media regularly refer to the “American occupation army” in Iraq.
When an American soldier dies in Iraq, the death is often recorded with a terminology usually reserved for Israeli soldiers and “settlers” who are said to have “met their fate” or “met their ruin” (laqiya masirahu or laqiya masra’ahu in Arabic)in other words-gotten what they deserved.
A cartoon in today’s Al-Ayyam newspaper intimates that America is trying to impose its will on Iraq and the Arab world-a theme that repeats itself regularly in the Palestinian newspapers. “Vote for the Candidate of the Left,” and “Vote for the Candidate of the Right” says the cartoon that shows Bush as the candidate of eight different parties.
The cartoons of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are much worse. He is often depicted as a child-eating butcher or a killer tsunami in the state-controlled Palestinian newspapers.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, former reporter for Cox Newspapers and The New York Times, teaches political communication at the Rothberg School of Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He has recently completed a study of the Palestinian elections for the Center for Near East Policy Research entitled “The Making of the Palestinian President 2005.” It can be read at www.Israelbehindthenews.com
Dr. Widlamski recently completed a PHD on the subject of the Palestinian Authority media.