Palestinian Affairs: The heat's on Abbas

Palestinian negotiators will have to toughen their position in line with the public opinion.

abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah had two main reasons to be disappointed this week. First, many of them were hoping that the IDF's five-day military operation in the northern Gaza Strip would spark a popular uprising against the Hamas regime, sending tens of thousands of Palestinians into the streets to demand an end to the Hamas rule. Second, the PA leadership was disappointed by the US stance toward the latest developments. Mahmoud Abbas and his top aides were hoping that the US administration would show some kind of understanding for their decision to temporarily suspend peace talks with Israel to protest the IDF operation. But last Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Abbas that he must resume the talks immediately and unconditionally. Consequently, he was forced to drop his demand for a cease-fire with Israel as a prerequisite for returning to the negotiating table. "The Palestinian Authority is today much weaker that it was before the Israeli operation," remarked a senior Abbas aide following the meeting with Rice. "In the eyes of many Palestinians and Arabs, Hamas emerged victorious from the confrontation with the Israeli army and we are been accused of 'collusion' with Israel. And now that the Americans are forcing us to resume the negotiations with Israel under fire, we will look even worse." As if to add fuel to the fire, Rice's visit to Ramallah coincided with the publication of a Vanity Fair investigative report revealing that President George W. Bush and Rice had approved a covert scheme to help Abbas's Fatah party overthrow Hamas soon after the Islamist movement came to power in the January 2006 parliamentary election. The report, denied by the White House, received wide coverage in the mainstream media in the Arab world, seriously embarrassing Abbas and prompting his advisers to spend a lot of time denying the charges that they had received US weapons and money to bring down Hamas. JUDGING FROM the reactions of most Palestinians, it was difficult to find many who did not believe the report was true. It was published on the same day that Hamas was celebrating its "victory" in the last round of fighting. As such, the report came as a gift to Hamas, which was quick to translate it and distribute it to dozens of media outlets throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Vanity Fair has actually backed Hamas's allegations that Fatah, with the help of the Americans, has been plotting to topple the Hamas government ever since the movement won the free parliamentary election. As soon as the IDF launched its last offensive in the Gaza Strip, Hamas leaders and spokesmen rushed to announce that that operation was designed more to remove Hamas from power than stop the rocket attacks. Hamas even went as far as accusing Abbas and the PA leadership in Ramallah of giving Israel a "green light" to carry out the operation. "Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah gangsters in Ramallah are hoping to return to the Gaza Strip in Israeli tanks," charged Sami Abu Zuhri, a prominent Hamas spokesman. "But they are living under an illusion. Our people will never allow them to return to the Gaza Strip with Israel's help." Hamas has clearly managed to convince many Palestinians and Arabs that the movement has fallen victim to an American-Israeli conspiracy backed by Abbas and some Fatah leaders in Ramallah. This explains why Al-Jazeera and most of the Arab world's popular TV stations seemed to be taking sides with Hamas over the past week. However, the Arab media in general did not only show sympathy with Hamas, but went on to launch scathing attacks on Abbas and the rest of the Arab heads of state, accusing them of being part of the alleged plot to bring down Hamas. Scenes of children and women being pulled out of the rubble of destroyed houses in the Gaza Strip were often accompanied by interviews with Palestinians and Arabs in different countries who hurled abuse after another at Abbas and other Arab leaders. Hamas may have been dealt a severe blow on the battlefield, but it has obviously scored many points in the battle to win the support of the Arab and Islamic masses. In addition, the mere fact that the top Hamas leaders are still alive despite the IDF operation and Israel's threats to eliminate them has also boosted Hamas's standing - at the expense, of course, of Abbas and his leadership. Moreover, the IDF operation appears to have further radicalized the Palestinians, with even many moderates calling on Abbas to boycott the talks with Israel until a cease-fire is reached. Even if the talks resume soon, the Palestinian negotiators will have to toughen their position in line with the popular sentiment on the Palestinian street. Abbas is also under immense pressure from his own Fatah loyalists to stick to his decision to suspend the talks. A top Fatah official in Ramallah expressed outrage over Rice's demand that Abbas return to the negotiating table without conditions. "She doesn't realize that she's causing Abbas a lot of damage by forcing him to resume the talks while Israel is continuing its attacks," he said. "And the weaker you are, the harder it is to display any kind of flexibility in the negotiations."