Abbas resignation threat puts PA in jeopardy

Abbas's threat to resign puts PA in jeopardy. China outlines £6bn plan for African development. Saudi forces gain ground against Shia insurgents. Market bombing kills mayor and eleven others near Peshawar, Pakistan. Iraq agrees essential electoral law. Obama announces 34,000 more troops for Afghanistan. All this and more in today's briefing.
Maddy Fry
9 November 2009

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has threatened to walk out on the struggling peace process between Palestine and Israel.  Abbas announced he would not be running for election in January only a few days before other Palestinian officials claimed they were meeting in order to consider disbanding the authority. Internationally this has caused much dismay, as it strikes a blow to the fragile infrastructure of Palestine’s limited sovereignty as well as crushing hopes of further peace talks with Israel.

Although officials from the Palestinian National Council have offered to talk over the decision with outside observers, some have admitted that the move was an angry reaction to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks last week regarding Israel’s policy on settlements. Clinton claimed talks between the two sides should restart without demands being placed on Israel to halt the building of Israeli houses on Palestinian land, a statement which seemed to dilute Obama’s previous demand for a complete freeze in settlement construction.

Israel and  the US have favoured Abbas, head of the Fatah faction which rules the West Bank, as a moderate voice within the Palestinian movement. Accordingly, the Israeli government expressed concern over the decision, with foreign minister Danny Ayalon stating that Israel and the United States are interested in a Palestinian leadership that is ‘responsible and pragmatic’. Israeli President Shimon Peres is also reported to have called  Abbas the day before he announced his resignation, saying to him that if he left, ‘ the situation in the region would deteriorate’ and called on him to ‘stay, for the Palestinian people's sake’ .

The openSecurity verdict: Mahmoud Abbas’s apparent decision to step down comes at a very significant point in the peace negotiations. Even if he were to withdraw from his role as president, he would certainly not have vanished from the political scene in Palestine; he has stated that he has plans to stay on as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and it is even thought that he may actually stay in the post of president for many months yet, due to the fact that the election set to take place on 24  January may be delayed if Hamas obstructs voting in Gaza where it remains dominant. Coupled with the fact that the decision is viewed by many as a clear political move designed to exert pressure on the US and Israel, there is reason to suggest that Abbas may go back on his decision.

Yet on the other hand, the possibility remains that Abbas’s move is about more than extracting concessions, particularly as so many of his colleagues have backed the decision, supplementing it with threats to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. If it is a heartfelt protest a lot may need to change for him to reconsider, including further concessions from Israel on settlement expansion and more signs of support for the Palestinian cause from the Americans. Although the US regards Abbas as key to its strategy in the middle east, both options seem unlikely, especially as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been resolutely digging his heels over calls by the US for Israel to freeze settlement building. In the face of such failures, President Obama may be reluctant to raise the stakes.

If the withdrawal of Abbas is indeed permanent, then the only hope for the region is that it reignites debate and topples a dead-end status quo.. The esteem with which he is held in the eyes of the US is possibly a sign that there are few other options. Whilst he has spent years trying and failing in his negotiations with Israel and the West, Benjamin Netanyahu has done little more than refuse to compromise over the expansion of Israeli settlements. With the order of the day so fruitless, few will mourn its passing. 

The most popular choice for president in the wake of Abbas’s departure is Marghan Barghouti, a man currently detained by the Israelis and looking at serving five consecutive life sentences, he is widely regarded as a figure akin to Mandela. His popularity in so immense with Palestinians that, despite being in prison, he could successfully reunite the Fatah movement and reverse Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006. Outside of the prison walls, however, there are no other obvious successors, and Fatah may be critically weakened. A change in leadership is clearly needed in both Israel and Palestine – but whether it will come in the right direction is proving hard to tell. 

China's six billion pound bid for greater influence in Africa

At a high-profile summit in Egypt yesterday the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao promised a loan of at least £6bn for resource-rich African countries in a bid to cement ties with them. The money would go towards investment in social programmes and infrastructure in the hope of expanding African markets eligible for trading with Chinese ones, as well as increasing the volume of raw materials for export. China also seeks to promote the loans as a means for helping African countries write off the debts owed and to help them cope with environmental challenges such as climate change.

Saudis overpower Yemeni insurgents

After nearly a week of intense fighting with Shia rebels, Saudi forces claimed to have driven them out of the mountainous region of Jabal Dukhan on the Yemeni border. However, spokesmen for the Shia Zaidi minority, members of whom had been conducting the insurgency, denied they had lost control of the area. They claimed that the Saudi Arabian government had given them permission to operate inside the area.

Should the Saudis have succeeded in expelling Houthi fighters, the development will be welcomed by the Yemeni government in Sana’a, who launched their own recent offensive against the Houthi and who are beset by violence perpetrated by Sunni militants in the south. Foreign observers fear the influence of al Qaeda combined with separatist rumblings may propel the country to become ‘a new Afghanistan.’

Twelve killed in market bombing in Pakistan

The Taliban yesterday took responsibility for a suicide bombing in a market near Peshawar. The attack, which was launched from a nearby car, killed twelve, one of whom was a mayor who had  formerly been known for sympathising with the Taliban’s cause. The group claimed that it was taking its revenge upon Abdul Malik for defecting to the campaign against the militias. The Pakistani government continues to fight against the insurgents in the north-west of the county, the response from whom has been a bout of suicide attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of civilians.

Today, the Peshawar region bore witness to a further attack as a suicide bomber struck a police checkpoint after being stopped on the outskirts of the city, killing three people including a policeman.

Iraq overcomes legal obstacle to January elections

Under increased pressure from the United States, Iraq has passed an electoral law allowing votes for both the president and parliamentary seats to take place in January.   The law resolved the distribution of seats in the oil-laden city of Kirkuk, impeded by sectarian rivalry between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen who all lay claim to the city. President Obama expressed his thanks, claiming that the development would speed the withdrawal of US troops.

Obama will send more soldiers to Afghanistan

President Obama has announced that despite the decision being set back in order to attempt to convince NATO to commit more resources to fighting the Taliban, he will be deploying a further 34,000 US troops to Afghanistan. The president rejected both Joe Biden’s proposal for only 10,000 more soldiers as well as that of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander for NATO and the US in Afghanistan, who had demanded 40,000 more.

Meanwhile President Hamid Karzai pledged to do more to tackle corruption and commit more to helping fight the Taliban.

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