Palestinians unhappy with Abbas's frequent absences

PA president's detached leadership style becoming more of an issue now that he must win a new mandate.

In four years as Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas has traveled to the far corners of the earth, but never set foot in the West Bank's largest city, Hebron. Ordinary Palestinians have long grumbled about their leader's trips abroad, some taken during times of intense crisis, such as last year's fierce internal fighting that led to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas. Abbas aides say he's helping the Palestinian cause by rallying international support. They say the day-to-day government is the prime minister's job and Abbas, who was in Chechnya on Sunday, is continuing a pattern set by his predecessor, frequent flyer Yasser Arafat. "The world is still supporting us ... simply because of our efforts, the efforts of President Abbas and before that the late president, Yasser Arafat," said Abbas aide Nimer Hamad. But the globetrotting Abbas was reminded recently by Fatah district leaders that he had never been to Hebron. Abbas, who also hasn't been to the nearby towns of Jenin, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem as president either, told the Fatah chiefs he'd get out more often but didn't make a firm commitment. However, the president's detached leadership style is becoming more of an issue now that he must win a new mandate. His opponents say his four-year term ends in early January, and he has said he'll call new elections. But there's also a possibility he will simply stay on as president, over Hamas' objections. In either case, his performance, including the loss of Gaza and his failure to reach a peace deal with Israel, will come under more scrutiny as he struggles for renewed political legitimacy. Commentator Hani al-Masri said Abbas has little to show for his years in office and, instead, will be remembered as the leader on whose watch Palestinian territories were "torn in half." Al-Masri said he believes Abbas tries to go abroad often, in part, to avoid dealing with the burning domestic issues. "We have very complicated problems that he couldn't handle, the split, the corruption, the occupation," said al-Masri, a writer for the pro-government Al Ayyam daily. Since 2005, Abbas has visited dozens of countries - several of them repeatedly. The list includes many Arab and European countries as well as Chile, Mauritania, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Pakistan, Senegal, Malta, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Brunei. On Friday, he met in Washington with President George W. Bush and was headed to Moscow, but made a stop in Chechnya first. Since the West Bank doesn't have an airport, Abbas must cross into neighboring Jordan, where he often spends extra time at his villa there. He takes his private plane on short trips, but the United Arab Emirates lends him a larger plane for longer hauls. When he's in the West Bank, he usually stays in the city of Ramallah, shuttling between his home there and his nearby government compound. The only other West Bank towns he's visited are Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem, and always for very specific reasons. Jericho was the preferred venue for hosting foreign leaders early in his term, and he attends Christmas festivities in Bethlehem annually. In November, he opened a business conference in Nablus. Last month, Fatah district leaders met with Abbas to discuss the future of the movement, which lost parliament elections to Hamas in 2006 and has been unable to reform itself or regain its popularity. Participants, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Abbas, said they urged him to visit their districts and help boost Fatah support. They noted that even foreign leaders seem to be getting around the West Bank more than Abbas. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and international Mideast envoy Tony Blair have all visited the West Bank town of Jenin, held up as a model of Abbas's law-and-order reforms, while Abbas has not. "We are dissatisfied with President Abbas for not visiting Jenin," said Mansour al-Saadi, a Fatah spokesman from the area. "People are asking why, and we have no answer." Abbas needs to be more involved, said Jenin resident Ziyad Shalbak, 48. "We understand that he is conveying our message to the globe, but to do so, he has to meet us first and listen to our voice," he said. Abbas is a reticent leader, more comfortable working with associates than facing large crowds. He was a reluctant campaigner during his 2005 presidential run. According to recent polls, he'd defeat a Hamas rival in presidential elections, but jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti of Fatah would do better. Hamad, the Abbas aide, said the president is simply following procedure by allowing PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and district governors to do their jobs. The foreign trips have paid off, he said, even to Sri Lanka, not a major player in Mideast politics. "The president's visit to Sri Lanka was very important," Hamad said. "This is a friendly country, and Abbas's photo is still in the airport of Sri Lanka."