For U.S., Bolstering Palestinian Leader Abbas Is Key to Mideast Peace
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heads a fractured government and a fractured political party. His term expired four months ago. His handpicked prime minister, trusted to manage billions of dollars in foreign aid, is reviled by some Palestinians as a U.S. proxy.
Whatever peace initiative President Obama envisions for the region, it involves a gamble that Abbas can overcome a long list of liabilities, put Palestinian politics back into one piece and hold up his side of any bargain. Abbas is to meet Obama at the White House tomorrow in a session that may be as much about ways to bolster the Palestinian leader as about Obama's broader strategy.
"When he is talking to the American administration, and the areas under his rule are divided, it does not bode well," said Rafiq Husseini, Abbas's chief of staff. "Despite the difficulties and despite the disunity within the Palestinian debate, he is still the president and he is still ready to reach a deal" with the Israelis, Husseini added.
Obama has made progress on Middle East peace a priority, and has met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and top Arab leaders. The president travels to Cairo next week for a speech outlining what is expected to be a new U.S. approach toward the region.
Abbas, 74, a longtime aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, took over after Arafat's death in 2004 and won election on his own the following year. Trained as a lawyer and historian, Abbas came to power from a career spent burrowing into the fine points of peace talks.
Abbas's credibility, supporters and critics say, is wholly tied to those negotiations. If progress is not imminent -- whether in the shape of a final agreement or at least something tangibly felt among Palestinians -- his shaky hold on power could collapse, a setback for those who favor a moderate course.
"He is not a man of resistance. He is not a man of fighting. He is a man of negotiation," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst and founder of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. And at this point, "he is not in good shape," Khatib said, with polls showing that he lags in popularity behind the leader of the Islamist Hamas movement, Ismail Haniyeh.
Hamas, which won 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, clashed with Abbas's Fatah movement and seized full control of the Gaza Strip. That division remains, with the Palestinian Authority in charge of the occupied West Bank. Talks over a joint government have been held but with no obvious progress.
Fatah is seen by many Palestinians as faltering under a legacy of corruption. It has not held a general convention in 20 years, frustrating younger activists and reformers. Hamas remains popular, earning sympathy for a recent three-week war with Israel and fighting Israel's ongoing economic blockade of Gaza.
In addition, Abbas's four-year term ended in January. Although his office contends that the law allows him another year, it still has given Palestinian governance a sense of uncertainty at a time when the United States is hoping for solid results.
Hamas argues that Abbas's presidency is now illegitimate, as are the ministers he recently appointed to keep the government functioning. Hamas's organization in the West Bank has been under heavy pressure from Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces. Many of its elected parliamentarians from the area are in prison.
Elections are scheduled for January. But some Palestinians say the vote will not be held until it is clear who will win.