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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds up a copy of the letter that he had just delivered to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting full United Nations representation for a Palestinian state, during his address before the 66th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 23, 2011. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds up a copy of the letter that he had just delivered to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting full United Nations representation for a Palestinian state, during his address before the 66th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 23, 2011. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

MIDDLE EAST

Is Mahmoud Abbas a political dead man walking? Add to ...

If the militant Palestinian movement Hamas is being portrayed as the big winner in its battle with Israel over the past eight days, enjoying widespread Arab support and Palestinian popularity, the big loser is Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas, known widely as Abu Mazen, can still lay claim to be the president of all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But the man who helped to advance the 1993 Oslo Accords that proffered peace with Israel, and was the preferred Palestinian of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, today is the forgotten man when it comes to negotiations between Gaza’s rulers and Israel.

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Worse, to many Palestinians, he’s a political dead man walking.

While a parade of Arab and other officials from Egypt, Qatar, Tunisia and Turkey made its way earlier this week to Gaza to display solidarity with Hamas, demonstrators of another sort held a rally in Ramallah Wednesday.

“Death to Oslo,” the crowd chanted, denouncing Mr. Abbas’s efforts. “The [Israeli] occupation only understands might,” they said.

“What have the negotiations done for Abbas and his men?” asked Qais Mohammad, 21, a student at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. “They have only brought him ridicule and contempt from his people.”

“Having eschewed violence as a means of achieving political objectives, Abbas has discovered time and again that he holds no cards to play vis-a-vis Israel,” wrote Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, in Thursday’s Haaretz newspaper.

The cards Mr. Abbas has played – renouncing violence, accepting the 1967 boundaries as the basis for a Palestinian state, even abandoning any personal interest in a right to return to his birthplace of Safed, now inside Israel – have not gotten him the state of which he dreams. It’s not even gotten him the kind of respect that Hamas seems to have garnered.

Palestinians in the West Bank may not like the conservative religious values espoused by Hamas, but they certainly respect the movement’s ability to wage violent resistance and to succeed in at least some of its goals.

Just what has the Abu Mazen approach gotten Palestinians, people ask.

Even his frequent demands for the release of some of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons have achieved little. Yet when Hamas kidnaps an Israeli soldier and holds him for more than six years, it is rewarded with the release of hundreds of prisoners as part of the deal for releasing the hostage, Gilad Shalit.

“You have to recognize that Abbas is perhaps the last Palestinian leader for a long time who declares that he will not allow a third intifada or terrorism,” Israeli author David Grossman said earlier this month, trying to persuade the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to help Mr. Abbas in his goal of United Nations recognition, rather than reject his aim.

Perversely, however, Israel has given de facto recognition to Hamas. Israel’s declared aims in the recent conflict did not include toppling Hamas. Rather, Israeli officials made it clear in public they had no interest in bringing down the Gaza government. The Israeli leadership seems to have accepted that if Hamas goes, only worse leaders will follow.

Mr. Abbas insists he will take his campaign for international recognition to the UN General Assembly later this month. But it will likely make little impression on his people.

“Even if the PLO achieves upgraded observer state status in the UN, this is a pale accomplishment when measured against the tangible gains achieved by Hamas,” Mr. Kurtzer, former ambassador, said.

“During the press conference announcing the truce, [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal was acting like the president of Palestine,” noted Palestinian journalist Imad Musa, “and it was obvious that this was something he wanted to portray.”

“The only ray of hope for Abbas is if Israel returns to the political process with him,” said Mr. Kurtzer, “but, thus far, there is no sign of Israel’s readiness to do this.

If that process is going to happen, it likely will be because of pressure on Israel from the United States, not because of a change of heart on Mr. Netanyahu’s part. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a courtesy call to Mr. Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah. It is not known what Ms. Clinton said to the 77-year-old Palestinian leader.

“I sure hope Hillary was whispering in his ear that real peace negotiations will begin Jan. 23,” said Gershon Baskin, a respected Israeli peace activist known for his negotiations with Hamas, referring to the day after Israel’s national election.

“Otherwise, Abu Mazen is finished.”

 

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