The announcement that Mahmoud Abbas has decided not to stand for re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority should come as a relief to all Palestinians. In fact, Abbas's departure will open a much-needed opportunity to take stock of where things stand and assess the future course of the Palestinian struggle.
Never an appealing or charismatic figure, Abbas has been losing popular support since his first day in office five years ago (his term technically expired in January 2009). Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which he played a prominent role, the official Palestinian leadership has been pursuing a formula for peace -- the two-state solution -- that has yielded nothing more than the intensification of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Those 16 years have been characterized by the further immobilization and immiseration of the Palestinian people, and an ever-growing list of civilian casualties, most recently in Gaza.
We are left with no other conclusion than this: that the so-called peace process with which Abbas has been indelibly associated, albeit as the Israelis' junior assistant, was calculated to produce exactly these results. The very first step of the Oslo process, undertaken with Abbas's assent in 1993, was to fragment and separate the occupied territories into shards of land, disconnected from each other and from the outside world, under total, institutionalized Israeli domination. Take one look at a map and you can't miss the separation of Gaza from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the further internal splintering of the West Bank, all of which is the direct result of Oslo.
Today, the Palestinian Authority (PA) over which Abbas presides is seen as a puppet. It has become the manager of the day-to-day burdens of military occupation, responsible for the hassle and expense of administering a restless population. All this is done on behalf of the Israelis, who have meanwhile gone on expropriating Palestinian land, bulldozing Palestinian homes, and building exclusively Jewish settlements in violation of international law (doubling the population of settlers since peace talks began). To all Palestinians other than the tiny clique who benefit from this arrangement, the sight of Abbas's U.S.-trained and Israeli-armed PA militiamen cooperating with Israeli forces -- if not taking direct orders from them -- is nothing short of grotesque. And when Abbas recently succumbed to Israeli and U.S. pressure and dropped his support for the Goldstone report, a U.N. Human Rights Council-mandated investigation into last year's Gaza incursion, many Palestinians saw it as the last straw both for Abbas -- and for the PA itself.
What, then, are the alternatives?