Having just spent a week visiting Israelis and Palestinians, I find it hard not to be struck by the sense that everything is in limbo. Even as they continue to negotiate, Israelis and Palestinians are, for the most part, biding their time as they wait to see what the political transition in Israel and in the United States will produce. But there is a looming issue that I found to be worrying Palestinians and Israelis alike: What happens in January when Mahmoud Abbas' term as president of the Palestinian Authority expires?
At present, elections for the presidency are not scheduled to take place until a year from January, leaving either a potential legitimacy gap should Abbas stay in office or a leadership vacuum should he depart. With Hamas in control of Gaza, Abbas issued a decree some time ago to hold the presidential elections simultaneously with the legislative council elections in January 2010 — effectively postponing the presidential elections, presumably in the hope that something might change in Gaza in the interim.
Hamas, however, is trying to take advantage of the gap between the expiration of Abbas' term and the scheduled date for the elections. Hamas leaders have already begun to declare that Abbas will have no legitimacy after his term ends. This is probably less a legal problem than a political one. But it may not be only about Abbas' legitimacy. According to the Palestinian constitution, when the president's office is vacated, the speaker of the legislative council becomes the acting president. Today that would be Abdel Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member who sits in an Israeli jail, or his deputy, Ahmad Bahar, who is also a Hamas member and is in Gaza.
Even if Hamas chooses not to declare that the office is vacant, there is the danger that Abbas, at least in part because his legitimacy is being challenged, could decide to leave in January when his term ends. He has, after all, periodically threatened to do so. Rather than waiting to see whether a leadership crisis materializes (or worse, the office becomes vacant), why not work out a strategy for dealing with this issue with Abbas now?
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's focus has been elsewhere. She remains determined to try to produce an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians on the permanent-status issues of Jerusalem, refugees, security and borders. While that might be desirable, it is simply not in the cards. As one senior Israeli official said to me, "There are only two people in the world today who think that a deal is possible now: Ehud Olmert and Condi Rice." With Olmert's days numbered, the Israeli government is not embracing his negotiating initiatives, and the Palestinians see little reason to make concessions to someone who is unlikely to be able to deliver his side of the bargain. Given that, Rice would be well advised to direct her attention elsewhere — and the problem looming in January would be a good place to start.
With Arab leaders (and Abbas) all likely to be in New York for U.N. General Assembly meetings later this month, Rice will have a perfect setting to work out a strategy for dealing with the Abbas problem. She should identify the options in advance, line up Arab support for Abbas staying in office — something that should not be hard to do since Arab leaders are likely to fear both a Palestinian leadership void and the prospect of Hamas filling that void — and then finalize the approach with Abbas.
At least two options could be pursued. First, have the Arab leaders and the Quartet members (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Russians) endorse the Abbas decree on holding the presidential and legislative council elections simultaneously, provided he commits to staying in office until the elections are held. This could both give him cover and a reason for staying in office.
Or, alternatively, try to seize the high ground and put Hamas on the defensive by having Abbas call for presidential elections to be held as soon as security conditions in Gaza permit. Those conditions would require at least some Palestinian Authority security presence, along with international observers to be in place to set rules, balloting locations and monitoring provisions to ensure the elections are free and fair and conducted without Hamas intimidation.
In such circumstances, Hamas would either have to allow some Palestinian Authority and observer presence for the elections or block it and lose any claims of legitimacy for itself or its charges against Abbas. For Abbas, legitimacy will be essential if he is to preside over negotiations that ultimately require compromise on the core issues of the conflict.
Regardless of the option taken, the administration needs to address the emerging problem. Lagging behind events has unfortunately been a hallmark of the Bush administration. If the administration is serious about trying to pass on to its successor an ongoing peace process, it had better focus not only on preserving the negotiating process but also making sure a Palestinian leadership crisis does not arrive just as our next president assumes office. This is one problem the Bush administration can and should pre-empt before it is too late.
Dennis Ross is the former special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton and author, most recently, of Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World.