Abbas Mashaal 2 298..
(photo credit: AP [file])
Even the most veteran officials in the Mukata "presidential" compound in Ramallah cannot recall such a tense meeting between a Palestinian leader and a senior US official as this week's encounter between PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
As Rice was walking out of the three-hour meeting, the officials rushed to phone Palestinian reporters to inform them that the talks were "very hard," and that the secretary of state had actually "rebuked" Abbas for signing the power-sharing Mecca agreement with Hamas earlier this month.
Reflecting the gloomy mood in Abbas's office, a top PA official said he did not rule out the possibility that Abbas would eventually end up being isolated in the Mukata like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. "Rice employed a threatening tone during the talks with President Abbas," the official said. "We've never seen her in such a bad mood. She just doesn't understand that the president had no choice but to reach a deal with Hamas."
The official quoted Abbas as telling his aides after the Ramallah meeting that, by rejecting the Mecca deal, the US was "pushing the Palestinian people toward civil war."
Abbas, according to the official, claimed that Washington had actually endorsed the Israeli stance toward the Fatah-Hamas agreement. "Why can't you wait until the new government is formed?" Abbas asked Rice. "Why are you rushing to make judgements on a government that hasn't been born yet?"
Abbas's main argument was that he had had no choice but to strike the deal with Hamas to prevent civil war. "The only two options facing me," he reportedly told Rice and other US diplomats, "were civil war or national unity, and I chose the second. This is the best deal, and you should give us a chance to prove that it will work."
Other Abbas aides in Ramallah said he went so far as to threaten to resign if the US insisted on its current policy toward the unity government. Abbas, they added, has chosen to live in harmony with Hamas, rather than appease the US and Israel. After all, his US-backed efforts to bring down or undermine the Hamas-led government over the past year have completely failed, leaving him with no alternative but to follow the saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Judging from his body language at the signing ceremony in Mecca, one can safely assume that Abbas was none too happy with the deal. His aides say he was forced to accept the agreement after coming under immense pressure from the Saudis.
"The truth is that we could have achieved a better deal under different circumstances," said one aide. "This agreement is good for Hamas and bad for Abbas and Fatah, because Hamas did not have to make serious concessions. We could have achieved the same agreement many months ago, because Hamas hasn't changed its position."
When Abbas signed the agreement, he was hoping that the Saudi royal family, in addition to the Egyptians and Jordanians, would be able to persuade the US to accept it. Hours before the signing ceremony in Mecca, Saudi King Adbullah bin Abdel Aziz made it clear to Abbas that he would put all his weight to sell the "national unity" agreement to the US administration.
However, Cairo and Amman have made it understood that they oppose the deal because it further strengthens Hamas and opens the door for a bigger Iranian and Syrian role in the conflict. The Egyptians and Jordanians are also angry with Abbas for giving the Saudis the credit for reaching the agreement, ignoring previous efforts by Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah to end the Fatah-Hamas power struggle.
ABBAS DEDUCED from his talks with Rice that Washington remains a hard nut to crack. His main fear now is that the Europeans will follow suit and demand that the proposed unity government clearly and unequivocally fulfill the conditions of the Quartet for lifting financial sanctions imposed on the Palestinians, namely renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and abiding by existing agreements with Israel.
Both Abbas and Hamas are desperate to see an end to the financial sanctions, which have virtually crippled the Palestinian economy, depriving tens of thousands of civil servants from full salaries at the end of the month. In their statements following the signing of the Mecca deal, both Abbas and Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh declared that their chief goal was to convince the international community to resume financial aid to the Palestinians.
By joining hands with Hamas, Abbas has embarked on a serious gamble that is now threatening to undermine his own authority.
Besides alienating the US, Israel and many European governments - as well as Egypt and Jordan - Abbas is also facing real trouble inside his Fatah party.
Many Fatah leaders and activists have not hesitated to criticize Abbas for signing the agreement, which they believe includes far-reaching concessions to Hamas. The opposition to Abbas is coming from both the young guard and the old guard in Fatah. Some Fatah activists are even talking about an open revolt against Abbas.
Young guard representatives like Kadoura Fares argue that it would have been better for Abbas to focus on reforming Fatah and preparing it for the next election, instead of turning it into a junior partner in a Hamas-led coalition. "Fatah needs major reforms to end corruption," he explained. "It's a mistake to continue to stick to power at any price. We have lost the confidence of our supporters."
Ironically, Fares is now facing punitive measures from his Fatah party for his statements.
Fatah's old guard leaders, on the other hand, are not opposed to the idea of partnership with Hamas. Nor are they demanding reforms and an end to corruption, since many of them are anyway regarded as icons of corruption and mismanagement. These leaders are at loggerheads with Abbas, simply because they believe he made too many concessions to Hamas.
Members of the Fatah central committee, a key decision-making body of the party, are reported to be boycotting Abbas. One of them is former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei [Abu Ala], who is said to have barricaded himself inside his home in the village of Abu Dis for the past two weeks in protest against the Mecca deal.
"The whole world is against this man [Abbas]," remarked a prominent newspaper editor in Ramallah. "It's not easy to be the president of the Palestinians when you have to face pressure from everyone: the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis, Qataris, Syrians, Europeans, Americans, Hamas and even Fatah. I wonder how he manages to cope with all the pressure and stress."
Regardless of the internal and external pressure, there is still no guarantee that Fatah and Hamas will succeed in implementing the Mecca agreement and forming a new coalition. Tensions and distrust between the two parties remain as high as ever. The war of words is also still raging, with spokesmen from each side trading allegations over various issues almost every hour.
On the ground, especially in the Gaza Strip, the situation remains almost unchanged. The feeling on the street is that the two sides have taken a recess and are preparing for the next round of fighting, when and if the coalition talks collapse.
Fatah and Hamas militiamen continue to roam the streets and hardly a day passes without a shooting incident or an attack on activists or offices belonging to both sides. Many Fatah and Hamas gunmen who were involved in the recent fighting are still afraid to appear in public.
Senior Fatah officials and security commanders have quietly moved to the West Bank [with Israel's permission] out of fear for their lives.
To complicate further matters, Hamas, too, appears to be divided on the Mecca accord. Some Hamas officials are attacking the agreement in private discussions in Gaza City, under the pretext that Hamas has moved closer to Fatah and not vice versa. What is certain nonetheless is that when the next round of fighting resumes, both Fatah and Hamas will at least agree on holding Washington responsible for "derailing" national unity and sparking civil war.