Mahmoud Abbas and the Arab Spring

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Last month, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi fell from power in Tripoli. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad appears to be teetering on the brink of a similar fate in Damascus. With the Arab world in full upheaval, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may be next to feel the heat.

Until now, Abbas has been largely impervious to the troubles around him. The West Bank leader has been unencumbered as he plots for his big moment on September 21, when he plans to declare Palestinian independence at the United Nations.

But while Libyans, Egyptians and Tunisians are now getting a long-deserved taste of freedom and taking charge of their futures, for the Palestinians, Abbas is not changing a thing. After he declares independence at the UN General Assembly, jubilant Palestinians may fire AK-47s into the air in Ramallah's Manara Square, hand out sweets on the streets, flash "V" for victory signs, and sound their car horns by the hundreds, but they will see very little meaningful political impact in their daily lives.

The day after the declaration, Palestinians will realize that the vote in the UN General Assembly was non-binding. So, while two-thirds of the international community may support the idea of a Palestinian state - an idea the United States and Israel have endorsed before - that's all they'll have to show for it. An idea.

Moreover, when Palestinians look out the window and realize that the Israeli military has not withdrawn and that the borders of "Palestine" are still not settled, their frustration will really sink in. The Palestinians will see that, even after the long and dramatic build-up to the unilateral declaration, independence cannot be achieved until the Palestinians negotiate the final-status issues that Abbas has assiduously sought to avoid.

If the Palestinians wish to act on their anger, here are two potential outcomes.


The first is another intifada (armed uprising) against Israel. On the day before the declaration, a million Palestinians are reportedly planning to take to the streets.

Abbas and other leaders insist on non-violence, but what happens when these same frustrated people come out the next day, and the day after that? As Palestinian columnist Daoud Kuttab warned recently, "there is no telling which route the Palestinians will take."

The other possibility is an "intra-fada," an uprising against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. In keeping with the Arab Spring, the Palestinians may yet determine that their own government is the source of their frustration.

The PA is little better than the other regimes of the region. Its elites have siphoned off hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of international aid to enrich their own families and cronies.

Fatah, the dominant faction of the government, is ossified, corrupt, and cozy with almost all of the other unpleasant regimes in the neighborhood. This led in no small part to Hamas's shocking victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

Hamas, it should be noted, did not campaign on suicide bombings and firing rockets at Israel. It campaigned on good governance, a theme that resonated among the Palestinians. If another election were held tomorrow, Hamas might well win again for the same reason.

Fatah - and by default, the PA - has not reformed.

Today, Abbas has the support of the international community, but only because he looks great compared to Hamas. In truth, he is little better than Hosni Mubarak or Gaddafi.

Both of those leaders stayed in power long after their legitimacy had waned. Abbas, too, has now extended his presidency, even after it expired in 2009.

Mubarak tried to use his power to build an empire for his son, Gamal. Gaddafi did the same for his son, Saif al-Islam.

Abbas's two sons, Yasser and Tarek, have been gobbling up U.S. contracts and are running the West Bank like a mafia family.

On this point, a former adviser to the PA notes that the Abbas oligarchy is growing at hurtling speeds, while the population loses patience at roughly the same rate.

With the exception of Saudi Arabia and a few others, corrupt Arab regimes are collapsing under their own weight. Will Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority be next?

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