Palestinian Affairs: What's he up to?

Abbas is accused of foot-dragging by his supporters, and of capitulating to the US by his opponents.

abbas happy 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas happy 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Mahmoud Abbas's announcement that his talks with Hamas over the formation of a Palestinian unity government had reached a "dead end" did not come as a surprise to most Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials. What was surprising was the timing of the announcement, which was made following Abbas's meeting in Jericho with US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice last Thursday. The fact that Abbas chose to talk about the failure of the unity talks at a joint press conference with Rice prompted Hamas leaders to depict him as a pawn in the hands of the Americans. Several Hamas representatives interviewed on Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite stations openly accused Abbas of "capitulating" to Washington's dictates to get rid of the Palestinians' democratically elected government. Some of Abbas's top aides responded by asserting that all Abbas wants is to persuade the international community to resume financial aid to the Palestinians - something he believes will never happen while Hamas remains in power. According to the aides, Abbas was supposed to announce a series of "decisive" measures last weekend to end the ongoing crisis. They said Abbas was expected to deliver an "important" speech to announce "dramatic changes," including the dismissal of the Hamas-led government and the calling for early elections. However, by Thursday - one week after the "dead end" announcement - the Palestinians and the rest of the world were still waiting to hear from Abbas. His foot-dragging policy has even drawn criticism from his political allies and loyalists, who have long been exerting pressure on him to make up his mind. At a series of meetings of the PLO executive committee and the Fatah central committee - two key decision-making bodies dominated by Abbas loyalists - some members said they were embarrassed by the way Abbas was handling the crisis with Hamas. "The problem with President Abbas is that he wants to get rid of the Hamas government, but he's too scared to make the move," noted a Fatah official in Ramallah. "Abbas knows very well that there is no point in pursuing the talks with Hamas, because Hamas does not want to show any flexibility." THE UNITY talks, which began almost four months ago, initially focused on the political platform of the future government. Abbas tried unsuccessfully to persuade Hamas to accept the three conditions set by the Quartet for dealing with any Palestinian government: renouncing violence, accepting Israel's right to exist and honoring previous agreements signed between the PLO and Israel. After the two parties failed to reach an agreement on the political platform, they started talking about forming a government dominated by technocrats and independents. The idea behind this was to avoid a situation in which Hamas as an independent movement would not have to change its ideology or strategy. The government would be entrusted only with running the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinians, while the PLO and Abbas would handle political issues, such as negotiations with Israel. The two sides even agreed to nominate their own representatives to the new coalition. A breakthrough appeared to be imminent as Hamas, for the first time, expressed readiness to cede control over the premiership. But it quickly turned out that each side was trying to appoint political figures to the new government. Hamas's list of "academics" and "technocrats" consisted of prominent figures known for their close ties to the Islamist movement, while Abbas's list included top Fatah operatives and former ministers, some of whom had been linked in the past to various financial scandals. Yet the controversy has not only been over the identity of the members of the new government. It has also related to the distribution of cabinet portfolios and senior jobs in the PA. Abbas's demand that Fatah take control over four key ministries - Information, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance - was totally rejected by Hamas leaders. "Abbas wants to turn Hamas into a junior partner in the government," charged a Hamas official in the West Bank. "He forgot that Hamas won the parliamentary election and that we have a majority in parliament." Abbas and his inner circle are convinced that Syria and Iran are responsible for the collapse of the unity talks. They explain that the two countries, whose leaders maintain close relations with the Hamas leadership outside the PA-controlled territories, are worried that a Fatah-Hamas agreement would be regarded as a victory for US diplomacy in the Middle East. Such a victory could also jeopardize increased attempts by the Teheran and Damascus regimes to overthrow the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is being depicted by the proxies of Iran and Syria as a "servant of the Jews." Washington's most trusted allies in the region, Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, are now talking publicly about the dangers of the Iranian-Syrian scheme to become major players in the Middle East. Abbas, who has found himself in a situation identical to that of Saniora, Mubarak and Abdullah, is also said to be very worried by the growing involvement of Iran and Syria in the internal affairs of the Palestinians. But since his options are extremely limited, all he can do at this stage is hope that Hamas will finally do him a favor and allow him to join their government.