'Dangerous' balancing act threatening Palestinian Authority leader

Critics doubt Mahmoud Abbas's ability to engage in peace talks with Israel or Hamas, while pushing for statehood and US aid.

Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, addresses the Palestinian leadership last week in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Rumours are circulating that he intends to retire.
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JERUSALEM // Critics say Mahmoud Abbas's reputation as the president of the Palestinian Authority is that of an indecisive leader who has regularly caved in to foreign pressure.

But lately, those same commentators have expressed empathy for the 76-year-old, who is grappling with daunting challenges.

"All his options are difficult because all would involve some degree of conflict with Israel and the US at the same time," said George Giacaman, a professor in Birzeit University's democracy and human-rights programme.

Mr Abbas tried to forge an independent agenda following the collapse of last year's peace negotiations with Israel, hoping to extricate the Palestinians from two decades of failed US-sponsored peacemaking efforts.

Putting him in direct confrontation with Israel and Washington, in retrospect, seems to be a decision that was doomed to fail.

Hani Masri, an independent Palestinian political analyst, said Mr Abbas was now "waiting for any development that can rescue him from this situation".

Despite a burst of support among Palestinians for seeking full membership of the UN in September, lobbying by Washington has stalled Mr Abbas's initiative.

Financially, too, his hands have been tied by Israel's refusal to distribute about US$100 million (Dh367.3m) of PA tax revenues as punishment for the Palestinians joining Unesco last month.

Serious doubts also surround Mr Abbas's ability to follow through on his May reconciliation accord with Hamas without incurring a crippling suspension of the substantial financial aid Washington provides.

The US considers Hamas a terrorist group.

Meanwhile, Israel last month handed his Hamas rivals a publicity coup when it agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier.

With a return to peace talks with Israel politically untenable due to its continued expansion of Jewish settlements, Mr Abbas's options are few.

"If you want to summarise how he's responding, it's waiting, surviving, until America and Israel change their positions," Mr Masri said. "But his strategy lacks an initiative for the Palestinians."

That absence of initiative appears to involve not making any meaningful advances on a number of issues popular among Palestinians, such as reconciliation and statehood recognition.

Although reports suggest progress on forming a caretaker government with Hamas and then holding elections next year, Mr Abbas's Fatah allies have said he was also still committed to retaining Salaam Fayyad as prime minister of the PA.

This position would seemingly hamstring progress since Hamas vehemently opposes his keeping Mr Fayyad.

Mr Abbas has vowed to continue pursuing full membership in the UN even though he lacks enough support in the Security Council.

Yet he has so far declined pursuing an assured success of elevating the Palestinians' observer status in the General Assembly.

It may all be a gamble to retain US support and salvage whatever authority Mr Abbas may have left at home.

But Mr Giacaman called this a "very dangerous" balancing act.

Palestinians increasingly see the PA and its leader as a virtual "subcontractor for Israel's occupation", he said.

This is in large part a result of joint PA-Israeli security operations that still arrest Palestinians while an end to Israel's occupation remains distant.

"So the question on people's minds is, what exactly is the function of the PA?" Mr Giacaman said.

In an address last month, Mr Abbas acknowledged this problem, telling Fatah's Revolutionary Council that the PA was "not an authority". "The people and Palestinian institutions are asking what the point of its continued existence is," he said. But he has indicated that disbanding it altogether would be a last-resort option.

Most Palestinian leaders admit that dissolving the authority and doing away with its vital education, health and municipal services, would be a disastrous setback for stability and the statehood bid.

"When you go to the UN for recognition, you don't say, 'Recognise my state while I dissolve its institutions'," said Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian politician and activist.

She said officials were instead looking to reform the PA so it would "empower the Palestinians while also making the occupation costly for Israel". But that is easier said than done, given Israel's near-total control over all things Palestinian - water, borders, movement, identity cards - between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Increasingly, there have been indications that Mr Abbas may soon resign from his six-year tenure as president. The rumours were being taken more seriously than previous ones and he has reportedly just bought a new home in Amman.

"Whether this is for an upcoming retirement, I don't know," said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst who lives in Jerusalem and Amman.

"But if Mahmoud Abbas left the scene, resigned or abandoned his PA position, it would be very difficult for anyone else to take over."