Abbas Redux?

It’s not exactly a dream job.

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So will Ahmed Queria, aka Abu Ala, formally accept the post of Palestinian prime minister? And if he takes it, will he be able to succeed where Mahmoud Abbas failed?

As the Globe and Mail reports, Queria is the veteran high-energy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and a key architect of the Oslo accords. He’s the number three in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, after Y.A. and Abbas. He has the same problem as Abu Mazen: Though a respected figure in his party, he has no real following among the Palestinian people. And, like Abbas, his long-standing (if troubled) relationship with Arafat might undermine him with the Israelis.

Although Sharon’s government refuses to negotiate with any Arafat pal, Israel seems willing to give Queria the benefit of the doubt, for now. No word yet from the Americans, who can’t afford to mess things up by seeming too pro-Queria, undercutting him with his own people (one lesson of the Abbas debacle).

Queria’s future success (if not his future, period) will depend on whether the U.S. and Israel cut him some slack, as they did not with Abbas.

Although Queria has only conditionally accepted the position, he’s already showing his pragmatic colors. He says his first order of business would be a cease-fire and he called on the Sharon administration to keep up their end of the roadmap by dismantling outposts and withdrawing from parts of the West Bank. He’s also requested substantial “practical” support from the international community.

From his perch, still, as speaker of the parliament, Queria managed a conciliatory tone, conveying sympathies to Israelis affected by two suicide bombings on Tuesday. The attacks, one outside Tel Aviv and the other in a Jerusalem cafe, left at least 14 Israelis dead, bringing the day’s tally to at least 17. (Two Palestinian militants and a 12 year-old boy were killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron.) Queria had this to say:

“We express our regrets and pain for the innocent lives (lost) as a result of violence and counter-violence…Such an act stresses once again the necessity that both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership … search for ways to end this killing.”

So far so moderate. But negotiating a cease-fire won’t be easy, with Israel blaming the barely-functional Palestinian Authority. Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner blamed the attacks on the Palestinian leadership’s inability to prevent such terrorist attacks.

The Palestinian leadership clearly faces a tremendous challenge. In order for the roadmap, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005, to succeed, the prime minister will have to convince Palestinian militant groups to stop their attacks on Israelis. Whether Arafat will be willing to yield him the power to do that is an open question. While Abbas managed to negotiate a temporary cease-fire, he couldn’t, finally rein in Hamas, any more than he was able to convince the U.S. and Israel to stop demolishing Palestinian homes, assassinating militant leaders, halt the construction of the security fence or freeze settlement building. On top of all this, Queria will have to keep his distance from Arafat. (An interesting question is whether Arafat is prepared to keep his distance from Queria.)

Queria has his work cut out for him. A Ha’aretz editorial, for instance, recognizes some of Queria’s political gifts, but argues that Israelis are just too burnt out to have any faith in the Palestinian leadership.

“[I]t is difficult to say his emergence at center stage raises much enthusiasm in Israel. There have been too many disappointments since Oslo, too many missed opportunities, too much innocent blood has been spilled in recent years to hang much hope on a change of personnel in Ramallah…Chances are that he will fail and be forced to leave the nearly impossible job.”

A Washington Post editorial agrees that the past year’s missed opportunities won’t come back around any time soon, but says Bush and Sharon could have done more to assist the Palestinian leadership.

“[P]ro-peace Palestinian leaders such as Mr. Abbas are not yet strong enough to sideline [Arafat]. Much of this summer’s diplomacy was aimed at bolstering the Palestinian moderates — but little was done. Rather than embrace the strategy, Mr. Sharon took only small steps, just enough to avoid trouble with Mr. Bush; once again Mr. Sharon failed to take any significant action against Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

A successful peace process will require bolder and more forceful action than any of the parties — including Mr. Bush — have so far been willing to take. ”

This, too, is the refrain in the Arab world. Beirut’s Daily Star lashed out at President Bush for abandoning his commitment to the roadmap:

“Ahmed Queria, the heir-apparent to Mahmoud Abbas’ comfortless throne, is a thoroughly decent man with both the intellect and the toughness to survive in the unforgiving world of Palestinian politics. None of that will be enough to revive the peace process, however, so long as Ariel Sharon remains his uncooperative self.

The good news is that the Bush administration has frequently displayed its affection for telling other countries how they should behave. The bad news is that when it comes to Israel, the usual rules of American policy do not apply. It has been 18 months since Bush told Sharon to get his troops out of the West Bank “now” — and yet there they sit. This set the pattern for Washington’s acquiescence in Israeli sabotage of the peace process, a campaign of rare efficacy.”


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