Presidential elections in occupied Palestine are just a few days away, and the two main contenders - Mahmoud Abbas and Mustafa Barghouthi - are worlds apart in what they bring to the Palestinian cause. Below is a comparative overview of their backgrounds and positions on the issues, and how the international community is responding.
Also known as Abu Mazen, Abbas is a founding member of Fateh, and for many years has been a very close aide to Yasser Arafat. Abbas was a key architect of the Oslo Accords, which benefited Israel and the Palestinian leadership, at the expense of the Palestinian people. Israel benefited by having the task of policing the Palestinians transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) - an authority who's power is only what the Israeli state will allow it to be. The Tunis-based Palestine Liberation Organization benefited by keeping its hold on leadership over the Palestinian people; the first intifada, being led from within the occupied territories, presented a threat that new activists would lead the Palestinian struggle. In their desperate cling to power, Arafat and his cronies made whatever compromises were necessary in order to reach some kind of agreement with Israel, and presented this to their people as a victory.
Abbas is also the co-author of the Beilin-Abu Mazen Understanding (1995), which bluntly rescinds the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homes in what is now Israel. Article VII, item 1, states that "Whereas the Palestinian side considers that the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is enshrined in international law and natural justice, it recognizes that the prerequisites of the new era of peace and coexistence, as well as the realities that have been created on the ground since 1948, have rendered the implementation of this right impracticable." Few people seem to realize this, and Abbas continues to get away with his promises to the refugees that they will return to their homes "one day"! This dishonesty and manipulation is consistent with the PA's repeated assurances to the Palestinian people regarding protecting this right, while at the same time encouraging and supporting initiatives that did the exact opposite, such as the Nusseibeh-Ayalon proposal and the Geneva Accord. The Beilin-Abu Mazen Understanding also includes severe compromises on many of the crucial issues; as Beilin boasted, "They are willing to accept an agreement which gives up much land, without the dismantling of settlements, with no return to the '67 border, and with an arrangement in Jerusalem which is less than municipality level." Israel has pocketed these concessions and sought new concessions on subsequent negotiations.
During his prime ministership in 2003, Abbas did very little to highlight Palestinian suffering, instead focusing on the actual purpose of the PA - to police the Palestinian people and prevent attacks against Israel. This was clearly illustrated in Abbas' speech at Aqaba, where he repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to end the Palestinian armed struggle, referring to it as "terrorism," while making no mention of Israel's continued onslaught against the Palestinian people.
The PA, of which Abbas has always been a very high-ranking official, is notorious for the level of corruption it embodies. Many industries have been monopolized by PA officials or their relatives, senior officials have been granted licenses to import olive oil from abroad, making it difficult for Palestinian farmers to sell their oil, and one Minister (Ahmed Qurei) was found to be involved in the sale of cement to Israel for building the wall! There are also rumors that anyone who does not vote for Abbas will not be employed by the PA - currently the biggest employer in the occupied territories.
And today, Abbas is again calling for an unconditional end to Palestinian armed resistance, and to the Intifada itself. Apparently, he is relying on Israel's benevolence to willingly reach a fair agreement. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could be so nave after all that has happened since the Oslo Accord, and especially during Sharon's reign. Sharon has already made clear his vision for a Palestinian "state" - in actuality a prison comprising of unconnected bantustans on 10% of historic Palestine - and U.S. President Bush has made clear that whatever Sharon wants, Sharon gets. Putting the Palestinian cause at the mercy of these two is ridiculous, to say the least.
The late Dr. Edward Said describes Abbas as follows: "Known universally for his "flexibility" with Israel... Abu Mazen is thought of generally as colourless, moderately corrupt, and without any clear ideas of his own, except that he wants to please the white man." In fact, as analyst Daoud Kuttab observed, Abbas has eliminated the political terms "thawabet" (immovable issues, such as the right of return and the status of Jerusalem), reasoning that politics can't be frozen and one must be flexible.
Little wonder then that Abbas is the unrivaled favorite of the U.S. and Israel. They have found their man, and this perfect fit gives some credence to the suspicion that Arafat was poisoned in order to make way for Abbas, thus facilitating the progress of U.S.-Israeli designs for the region. Analyst Hasan Abu Nimah warns that "Abbas will soon be served with endless lists of impossible demands... [which he] will not be able to fulfill... and the region will be back to square one."
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi
In second place, according to the polls, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi offers a refreshing and needed change from the PA's corruption and self-serving policies. A physician by profession, Dr. Barghouthi is the founder of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS), which has provided medical care and aid to 495 Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps. PMRS volunteers have distributed food, water, and emergency first aid services to more than 1.3 million Palestinians - this alone is more than the Palestinian Authority has ever done for the Palestinian people.
Dr. Barghouthi is also a human rights activist, involved in grassroots efforts for freedom, democracy, national unity, and social justice in Palestine. He has advocated for the Palestinian cause for more than 25 years, giving eloquent and convincing talks all over the world, presenting the Palestinian situation in terms of human rights and international law. And throughout these efforts, he has been beaten, arrested, and shot at by the Israeli Occupation Forces.
In 2002, Dr. Barghouthi, along with Dr. Edward Said, Dr. Haidar Abdul Shafi and Ibrahim Dakkak, established the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) in order to carry on the struggle for Palestine in a democratic manner that involves all segments of Palestinian society. Dr. Said has described this initiative as the "only genuine grassroots formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat's old (rather than young) Fatah activists. PNI does not throw up its hands at the directionless militarization of the Intifada. It offers training programs for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that this answers to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, PNI which is about to become a recognized political party, seeks to mobilize Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections -- authentic elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen."
Dr. Barghouthi currently serves as the Secretary-General of the Initiative. And of him, Dr. Said says "Singularly free of conventional rhetoric, Barghouthi has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practices the pluralism and co-existence it preaches."
Dr. Barghouthi's electoral program covers all aspects of the Palestinian cause; ending the occupation, implementing the International Court of Justice's decision to remove both the racist wall and Israeli settlements, achieving national unity (within and without the occupied territories), sharing Jerusalem as a capital, securing the right of return for all refugees, eliminating government corruption, and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. In effect, a complete restructuring and democratization of Palestinian institutions and society that also invites the diaspora's participation.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has given its endorsement to Dr. Barghouthi, based on agreements on key issues such as stressing the "right of return" of refugees to what is now Israel, and insisting on full Israeli withdrawal from occupied areas as a pre-condition to any peace initiatives. In fact, Dr. Barghouthi has pledged not to sign any peace deal without the release of all political prisoners.
Israel's treatment of Dr. Barghouthi and his campaigners, when contrasted to its handling of the Abbas campaign, provides further evidence to which candidate benefits whom. When Dr. Barghouthi campaigned in East Jerusalem, he was detained for several hours. Just last week, he was beaten up at an Israeli checkpoint for coming to the aid of one of his campaigners who was being harassed by the Israeli soldiers. And a few days ago, a 17 year-old volunteer was shot dead as he put up campaign posters in a Gaza refugee camp. Abbas and his campaigners, on the other hand, enjoy unrestricted movement within and without the occupied territories.
The U.S., Britain, and the Arab states have also been actively supporting Abbas. U.S. officials have been coordinating with Abbas when an official visit might be most suitable to boost him, and British Prime Minister Blair has reportedly made his proposed conference contingent on Abbas winning the election. Arab leaders also prefer someone who will preserve the status quo, and Egyptian President Huns Umbra (who has recently announced his confidence in Sharon's desire for peace) has openly stated his preference for Abbas. And of course, the international media has given Abbas immensely greater coverage.
Dr. Barghouthi notes that the U.S. and Israel "are trying to force a particular candidate on us. It's very strange, because all the people who are running as candidates in these coming elections are pro-peace: so why would they prefer one person to another? If they are just looking for someone who will give in to them, then that person will fail to represent the Palestinian people. I am planning to represent our people, not anybody else's interests."
In fact, if the Palestinian people are to have a leadership that truly represents their needs and aspirations, Dr. Barghouthi is the one to trust.
Haithem El-Zabri is a Los Angeles-based activist and the editor of Alaqsaintifada.org. For special coverage of the Palestinian elections, please see www.alaqsaintifada.org