Analysis: Artificially respirating Abbas

Analysis Artificially r

When American envoy George Mitchell meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Friday, don't be surprised if the two get a little closer than they normally would. The Americans believe that Abbas requires urgent resuscitation, and Mitchell's separate meetings with Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are intended for that purpose. Don't be surprised if Netanyahu, in his meeting with Mitchell, is asked for some kind of confidence-building measure to boost Abbas. The American envoy already sent an associate to tell the media on Wednesday that US President Barack Obama will still crack down on settlement construction. But if Mitchell really wanted to boost Abbas, perhaps he should get on a plane and go back to the United States, because his mere presence in Ramallah harms Abbas at a sensitive time for him. The Israeli media has made it look like Abbas is faltering because of a premature press release issued by Israel's UN delegation in Geneva. The spin has been that Israel embarrassed Abbas last weekend by celebrating the delay in deliberations about the UN Human Rights Commission's Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead. The Palestinians learned that their delegation in Geneva had accepted the delay from the Israeli media, and they blamed Abbas. A Palestinian news agency even reported that Israel had blackmailed Abbas, warning him that if he did not agree to the delay, Israel would publish tapes of him encouraging top Israeli officials to continue Cast Lead until Hamas was toppled. But the news about temporarily postponing prosecuting Israel internationally was merely a straw Israel put on Abbas's back. The Obama administration, by contrast, has put a whole haystack on his back and is liable to break it. First Obama raised expectations in the Arab world when he insisted on the unrealistic demand of a complete freeze in Israeli construction east of the 1949 armistice lines. Abbas, who couldn't appear less anti-Israel than the president of the Unites States, made this a new precondition for talks with Israel. Then Obama forced Abbas to come to Washington to meet with Netanyahu, despite his demand not being met. This humiliated Abbas, who was so noticeably upset in his meeting with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Barak had to butter him up by telling him that his popularity on the Palestinian street surpassed that of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, at his peak. Finally, in his speech at that summit, Abbas set a mid-October deadline for significant progress on the peace process. This deadline, immediately after three weeks of Israeli governmental officials barely working due to the holidays, cannot and will not be met, which will harm Abbas even more. So what should Obama have done? A poll taken by former Mideast envoy Terje Larsen's International Peace Institute gives an indication. The comprehensive poll of 2,400 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza found that the Israeli presence in the West Bank was not among their top three concerns. They cared more about Palestinian unity, economic conditions and crime than about settlements. Those three issues of Palestinian governance, sustenance and law enforcement happen to all be central elements in Netanyahu's much-maligned economic peace plan. If Obama would have focused on improving the Palestinians' lives, perhaps the Palestinian leader's popularity would not be plummeting ahead of a key election no later than June of next year. One of the goals of Netanyahu's approach was to strengthen Palestinian relative moderates ahead of the Palestinian race, because it could be a lot more fateful than the Israeli and American elections were for the future of the Middle East. If Abbas falls and Hamas wins the election, no American envoy could succeed in reviving the peace process. That's why it's so important for America that it acts smartly in its renewed efforts to revive Abbas.