Election call puts Abbas back at the head of Palestinian table
If Yasser Arafat was an impish uncle who seemed capable of setting off firecrackers to liven up a family dinner party, his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is the droning, monotone guest who threatens to put everybody to sleep before dessert.
Yet it was Mr Abbas who tossed the firecracker that brought Palestinians to the edge of civil war for the first time since Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 six day war. His call for new presidential and legislative elections - less than a year after polls put Hamas into power - touched off intra-Palestinian skirmishes when Hamas accused him of attempting a political coup.
In addition to random shooting, which Gaza has often seen in the past, fire was directed at leaders of the two contending camps, while senior intelligence officers on both sides were kidnapped and executed. The street rampaging was halted midweek after desperate calls for calm by Mr Abbas, leader of the Fatah faction, and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas.
But Gaza remains dangerously perched just above the abyss of civil war.
What was stunning about Mr Abbas' election call was that it came from a man who had built a career on non-confrontation. Locked into an impossible bind by Hamas' refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist and Israel's refusal to deal with a Palestinian regime dedicated to its demise, the 71-year-old hoped the Palestinian electorate would offer a way out by unseating Hamas.
To some, Mr Abbas' move was a desperate lunge that had no chance of succeeding, since the Hamas-dominated legislature was unlikely to dissolve itself and the Hamas-dominated civil service was unlikely to organise elections that Hamas claimed to be unconstitutional.
If push came to shove and the argument was left to Fatah and Hamas gunmen to settle on the streets, most observers would likewise put their money on Hamas, whose forces are more disciplined, better led and better armed.
But some saw a Machiavellian calculation in Mr Abbas' election ploy. He had to assume it would ignite strong opposition from Hamas and militant splinter groups, according to this thesis.
However, while Hamas was radical in its stance towards Israel, it has attempted since its election victory to behave as a responsible governing faction on behalf of all Palestinians.
While Hamas might lead the Palestinians into battle against Israel whenever it was ready, Mr Abbas presumably believed it would want to avoid civil war. Thus, if things got bad enough, as they threatened to get this week, Hamas might be desperate enough to seek a way out by reaching a reasonable compromise with a similarly desperate Fatah.
Such a compromise, calling for a national unity government to replace the Hamas government, has actually been on the table for months, the subject of intense debate.
The two factions have been unable to agree on the distribution of ministerial portfolios, and more importantly on a formulation of a stance towards Israel that would enable the international community to resume its critical funding of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas might even choose in the end to accept elections rather than risk civil war in the belief that it will win by an ever-bigger majority than last time.
A poll published by a Palestinian research institute last week showed Fatah beating Hamas 42 per cent to 36 per cent if elections were held now. However, a poll by the same institute before the last elections also predicted a Fatah victory, incorrectly.
Perhaps more relevant is the recent poll's reading of a potential race between Mr Abbas and Mr Haniyeh for the presidency. Although Mr Abbas won 62 per cent of the vote in the 2004 elections, compared with 19 per cent for his closest contender, the recent poll shows him in a dead heat with Mr Haniyeh.
This plunge in popularity reflects the ineffectiveness of a politician devoid of charisma attempting to win a back-alley brawl using logic and goodwill.
Although he was a founding member of Fatah in 1957, together with Arafat and others, Mr Abbas has been a relative moderate all his public life.
Born in 1935 in Safad, in what is today northern Israel, Mr Abbas fled with his family to Syria in 1948 during Israel's war of independence.
While working in Qatar as director of personnel in the emirate's civil service, he joined a small group of other exiled Palestinians led by Arafat in founding Fatah, the kernel of what would become the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
In the ensuing years, he moved together with the PLO leadership to Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, although he distanced himself from the group's terror activities. He became the PLO's moderate face to the world, even establishing a dialogue with left-wing Israelis.
Mr Abbas is acknowledged as the prime Palestinian architect of the Oslo accords in 1993, which brought Arafat and the other exiles back to the West Bank and Gaza amid hopes for peace that eventually collapsed.
The refugee from Safad championed the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel, a call rejected by Israel as a formula for the demographic demise of the Jewish state. However, he was the most outspoken Palestinian leader in denouncing the use of violence, including the intifada, to achieve the Palestinians' political goals.
This became one of the principal points of contention between him and Arafat after the latter appointed him prime minister in 2003. Mr Abbas vainly called for the dismantlement of the al-Aksa Brigades, which carried out suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel. Arafat's refusal to relinquish command of the security forces to Mr Abbas led to the latter's resignation after half a year.
When Arafat died the following year, Mr Abbas, as one of the few remaining founding fathers of Fatah and with a reputation unstained by corruption, emerged as his natural successor.
Although Israel welcomed his accession, it refused to offer concessions unless he disarmed the militants. Mr Abbas, however, was unwilling to risk a civil war.
Unable to show his people tangible achievements such as the freeing by Israel of prisoners, and unwilling to have a showdown with the militants, his popularity steadily declined even as Hamas' popularity rose.
Although the political hand he is holding today is anaemic, Mr Abbas has not become irrelevant. For Israel and the west, he remains the address through which they can hope to establish links with the Palestinian forces of moderation now in hibernation. For Hamas, he is a useful buffer between their own unyielding militancy and the need to maintain reasonable relations with the west.
Mr Abbas has undergone surgery for prostate cancer and sometimes appears weary. But his decision to confront Hamas with his election call shows that he is not willing to serve as a figurehead.