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Abbas, Though Out of Arafat's Shadow, Faces Familiar Obstacles

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page A23

JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 -- Twelve days after Mahmoud Abbas was appointed Palestinian Authority prime minister in the spring of 2003, he hosted a joint news conference with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Television networks from Arab nations, the United States and Britain carried the appearance live. Palestinian television stations played cartoons.

"I asked the information minister why," Abbas recounted in a closed-door resignation speech before Palestinian lawmakers four months later. "And he said, 'There were instructions,' meaning from the president [Yasser Arafat], under whose orders they broadcast cartoons at that time."

On his first official day in office Saturday, Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, faced many of the same frustrations that prompted him to resign as appointed prime minister 16 months ago. Friday night, on the eve of Abbas's inauguration as the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Israel announced it was suspending contacts with Abbas's government because of a deadly attack by Palestinian militants that killed six Israelis at a border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

"It appears that my style and plan are not acceptable to anyone," Abbas told the lawmakers in the private resignation speech on Sept. 6, 2003, large parts of which were published weeks later by Palestinian and Israeli newspapers. "Israel says, 'He's good,' and strikes us. Hamas says, 'He is an honest man,' and strikes us. The Palestinian leadership gives us a stick and then accuses us of threatening Palestinian legitimacy."

In the end, Abbas lamented, he had become "the punching bag."

Today there is one change in that laundry list of obstacles: Yasser Arafat is dead.

After spending decades in Arafat's shadow and most of his career avoiding a public political role, Abbas must attempt to win the support of competing factions among his people while addressing Israeli and international demands that he help resolve the four-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has claimed more than 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives.

"He's the one now," said Ziad Abu Amr, a Gaza representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council who served as a cabinet minister during Abbas's brief 2003 government. "He believes in power-sharing, he believes in inclusion. . . . It gives him clout. He can deliver."

But throughout much of his political career, Abbas has walked away from conflict.

"He gave up too soon," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashwari of Abbas's resignation as prime minister. "Now, the main difference is he sees he's been given the mandate and he has legitimacy. When you have a vote of confidence from the people and a mandate to carry out your own agenda, then you won't be so suspicious and sensitive. Hopefully he will develop a thicker skin."

Abbas has been a key participant in every major effort to negotiate peace between the Palestinians and Israelis for more than a decade. He wrote a book about his experiences in shaping the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

"I think Abu Mazen almost never has taken a personal risk in pushing forward" new ideas during negotiations between the two sides, said Gilead Sher, one of his Israeli counterparts during the failed 2000 Camp David talks.

At Camp David, Abbas was one of "the toughest, most dogmatic" of the Palestinian negotiators, Sher said.


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