Abbas Produces a Dubious Twist

RAMALLAH — U.S. and Israeli failure to take either Palestinian rights or Israeli settlement expansion seriously has placed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) in an untenable situation, which could seriously damage peace prospects.

On Thursday night Abbas announced his resignation in Ramallah. He expressed his frustration at the inability of the U.S. administration to pressure Israel to cease settlement building in the Palestinian territories, a Palestinian precondition for resuming negotiations with the Israelis.

The PA leader’s statement caused serious alarm in both Israeli and U.S. circles, as he is regarded as the most moderate Palestinian leader.

Abbas’s Fatah movement is strongly divided over a successor. And in the background lurks the PA’s arch enemy, the Gaza-based Islamic resistance organization Hamas, which many Western countries refuse to deal with.

While the international community backs the PA, many Palestinians see Abbas as an Israeli and U.S. stooge. They argue that he has put the interests of the Palestinians second to the geopolitical and strategic interests of Israel and its unquestioning benefactor, the U.S.

"The American administration has vacillated over pressuring the Israelis to cease settlement building, and appears to have gone back on its promise to enforce this as a precondition for continued negotiations," says Dr Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah.

"This has weakened the PA to the point where it is now confused and desperate," Awad tells IPS.

Realizing that even a compliant and over-compromising Palestinian leader has his limits, both the Israelis and the U.S. have gone into damage control in a bid to woo Abbas back and persuade him to reconsider his decision.

As rumors of Abbas’s impending decision began to circulate in the Israeli media on Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres immediately called Abbas and asked him to stay on.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reprimanded by several Arab leaders over her recent statement lauding Israel over its alleged "decision to limit settlement expansion" which then forced her to backtrack, appealed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to persuade Abbas to change his mind.

But whether Abbas will really resign or whether he is just using a possible resignation to pressure Israel and particularly the U.S. remains open to question.

"There is a strong possibility that if the Americans offer Abbas a way out, and recommit to international resolutions in regard to the occupied Palestinian territories, Abbas will withdraw his resignation," says Awad.

"The language in his statement on Thursday left this possibility open. Furthermore, he has hinted at resignation before as a political bargaining tool. He earlier accepted the resignation of his prime minister Salam Fayyad only to reappoint him. He also initially backed the Goldstone report, then withdrew his support before the anger of the Palestinian public again forced him to support it," added Awad.

Abbas might well be calling a bluff. But his weak position and poor standing amongst both the Palestinian public and various Palestinian political parties has left him in a position where taking pot-shots in the dark has increasingly become a strategy.

He recently tried to call Hamas’s bluff by announcing that Palestinian general elections would be held in January with or without a unity deal with Hamas or their approval.

This was an attempt to either pressure the Islamic movement into joining a unity government, or sidelining them to make them look like spoilers for refusing to take part in elections. It didn’t work.

Fathi Hammad, Hamas’s de facto interior minister, responded immediately by saying that his ministry would prevent any elections from taking place in Gaza as they had been unilaterally announced by the PA without consulting other factions.

The Islamic movement further stated that anybody involved in the elections would face legal consequences.

"The Americans helped weaken Abbas by asking him and the Egyptians, who have acted as mediators between the two Palestinian factions, two weeks ago to stop the unity talks," Awad told IPS.

"They threatened that any unity government which included Hamas would see U.S. aid withdrawn."

This has left Abbas and his PA looking incompetent in that not only do they appear unable to control the Palestinian territories, they are not even able to hold elections there. Under this scenario many skeptics are doubting that the January elections will take place.

So disillusioned has the PA become, that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stated on Wednesday that the alternative left for Palestinians may be to "refocus their attention on the one-state solution where Muslims, Christians and Jews can live as equals. It is very serious. This is the moment of truth for us."

This would be anathema to Israel, as the demographic balance in favor of the Palestinians would see the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

"The Palestinians are not going anywhere. We are here in the West Bank, Gaza and we represent a sizeable minority in Israel proper," says Awad. "Israel has to consider its options."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.