By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
The Bush administration encouraged the 2006 parliamentary vote and was stunned by Hamas's victory. The United States considers the group a terrorist organization.
"If there is an honest election and Hamas wins again, who would recognize it?" said Hani al-Masri, head of the Palestine Media, Research and Studies Center and a member of a smaller party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
From a U.S. perspective, helping Abbas show results is the goal, said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), member of a congressional delegation touring the region this week and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
"Both Netanyahu and Obama need to create in Abu Mazen a clear feeling that he can provide," said Ackerman, using the common nickname for Abbas.
Husseini, the chief of staff, argues that the help is deserved -- particularly from the Israeli side. Although Palestinian politics are in disarray, Abbas's government has been given broad credit for cleaning up the Palestinian Authority's finances and improving security in the West Bank.
Neither project has endeared him locally. Financial reform was led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank economist. Fayyad enjoys international support, but he is opposed by Hamas and by Fatah members who think a party loyalist should be prime minister.
The creation of a U.S.-trained Palestinian security force has curbed crime in West Bank cities and has been credited by Israel with helping reduce militant attacks. But Palestinians say that has not led to an easing of Israeli restrictions in the West Bank, a curb on Jewish settlements in the area or other steps.
"Abbas wants to make sure he does everything so nobody can create pretexts or excuses" for not advancing the peace talks, Husseini said. "We are waiting to reap the benefits."