Abbas is a man in exile, even among his own

The Palestinian president appears increasingly out of touch with his own people for accepting a US invitation for direct talks with Israel in Washington.

With a portrait of late Palestinian Yasser Arafat on the background Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the Fatah conference in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009. The Palestinians' Fatah movement came together Tuesday for its first convention in 20 years, trying to rise from division and defeat with a pragmatic political program and new leaders, in what its supporters hope will be the final push toward Palestinian statehood. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
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RAMALLAH // Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, faces a crisis of credibility among his own people as he heads into direct talks with Israel in Washington this week.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than a rather awkward security crackdown Thursday in Ramallah, when leftist factions convened a meeting to protest against Mr Abbas's decision to accept the US invitation to the talks. Security officials justified the actions of dozens of plainclothes security officers, who disrupted the meeting and prevented a press conference from being held, as a legal measure against an "illegal rally".

But privately, Palestinian Authority officials expressed their dismay at what looked to most like an effort by security services to stifle dissent. And dissent there is. All Palestinian political factions, bar one, have denounced the direct talks, some in harsher language than others. Only Fatah, Mr Abbas's own group, supports direct talks. Even among its members, though, there are plenty of disapproving voices.

Ordinary Palestinians, as well as the political factions, feel they have little influence on the Palestinian leadership's decisions. The Palestinian polity is broken. There is no functioning parliament. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are divided under the leaderships of rival factions. The PA government under Salam Fayyad was appointed by presidential decree and elections - presidential, parliamentary and municipal - have all been postponed indefinitely.

Even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is chaired by Mr Abbas and represents Palestinian interests in international forums, including negotiations with Israel, was not properly consulted about the decision to go to direct talks. The US invitation to the talks was accepted, without a quorum as normally required by the PLO's rules, at an emergency meeting of its executive committee.

At the heart of the discontent is the decision to agree to go to direct talks absent any of what Israel defines as "preconditions": a complete settlement construction freeze and clear terms of reference for negotiations that would frame the talks along international resolutions. The Palestinian side had hoped the statement of the Quartet on the Middle East - the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union - on August 20, which described the negotiations as an effort to "end the occupation that started in 1967", would form the basis of the invitation. But neither Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, nor George Mitchell, the US special envoy, made any reference to that statement in their invitation to talks, issued that day.

Instead, as US officials have made clear over the past week, the agenda and terms of reference will be set in the first months of direct negotiations. While Washington asked both sides not to take "provocative measures", an apparent reference to Israel's temporary and partial settlement construction freeze due to end on September 26, it was scant consolation. The Palestinian leadership's subsequent attempts to justify their decision to go to talks have also been clumsy.

"I understand people's frustrations," Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, said at a press conference on August 23. Yet he went on to say the PLO saw the Quartet statement as the "turning point", ignoring the fact that the invitation itself made no reference to that statement. It was a point not lost on those at the press conference, who were also not impressed by Mr Erekat's statement that the Palestinian delegation would walk out of the talks should settlement construction anywhere in occupied territory "including East Jerusalem" continue.

The problem, as one local reporter commented after the press conference, is that no one believes it. "There is a real leadership crisis in the Palestinian arena," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and a former legal adviser to the PLO, adding that it "is not responsive to the people it represents or even the factions it represents". "We know that come September 26, Erekat will have to back down on what he said about settlement construction," Ms Buttu said. "Even if the settlement construction freeze is extended, it is still a partial construction freeze and not one that includes East Jerusalem, as he stipulated."

Ms Buttu said she understood that the Palestinian leadership had come under "enormous international pressure" to accept the invitation to talks. But, she suggested, it would be better served if it were more forthcoming. Instead, "the leadership lies, directly, to its own people, and that's why its credibility is so low". In this respect, the lack of functioning political institutions works in the leadership's favour, said George Giacaman, the co-founder and a board member of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.

"Without functioning institutions, there is no real way for dissenting voices to make their opposition felt," Mr Giacaman said. And while this lack of accountability mattered to Palestinian leaders, "the leadership is weighing international pressure against popular pressure and it seems the former takes priority". With little credibility and no diplomatic breakthrough, the situation could conflagrate.

"The direct talks will lead to direct failure," Ms Buttu said. "Failure could lead to another intifada, but not necessarily one against Israel. This one might well be directed against the Palestinian Authority."