Washington Watch: Vote for me, I'm a loser

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Vote for us because we're a bunch of losers. It's hardly a winning slogan for a president and party seeking reelection, but it pretty well sums up the platform of the on-again, off-again candidacy of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Elections he called for January have been postponed indefinitely, and he has threatened to pull a Sarah Palin and resign early, but the conventional wisdom says he's bluffing. That's because if he quits early, the presidency goes to his arch Hamas foes. Parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, a senior Hamas figure released in June from an Israeli prison, would become the new president with the advantage of incumbency when elections are held. It will also mean that Israel, the United States and major European countries won't deal with the PA because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, honor past PA agreements and renounce violence. Contrary to most media reports, it appears Abbas didn't rule out running for a second four-year term but actually said, "I do not want to run." Sounds like, "Please twist my arm." Abbas is a weak leader of whom it was once said he couldn't deliver a pizza, much less a peace agreement. And that's part of his dilemma. His message to voters is statehood through a negotiated two-state solution and peaceful coexistence, while Hamas says armed resistance by the Islamists, not negotiations, has driven the Zionists out of Lebanon and Gaza and is the only way to end the hated occupation. Abbas has no dramatic peace achievements to offer voters or even non-dramatic ones, since he steadfastly refuses to sit down with the Israelis until they agree to a total settlement freeze, return to the pre-1967 borders and resumption of talks where they left off with the previous Israeli government. ABBAS'S THREAT to leave office along with threats to bypass negotiations and unilaterally declare statehood are a heavy-handed attempt at shock treatment by a leader ready to blame everyone else for the lack of progress toward peace. Abbas has a plethora of excuses: Washington's refusal to force Israel to accept the total settlement freeze, Israel's unwillingness to pick up where talks halted with the previous government, Hamas's rejection of the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal with Fatah, and disappointing support for the PA from the Arab world. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly tossed cold water on talk of the statehood declaration, saying it "has to be achieved through negotiation" with Israel. Hamas, for its part, had a separate objection: If you're going to declare statehood, it told Abbas, make sure it covers everything from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, eliminating Israel. Israel responded with threats of unilateral action of its own, including annexation of big chunks of the West Bank and a halt in the transfer of taxes collected for the PA. The US Congress can be expected to respond with a cutoff in all aid and other restrictions of its own. Abbas wants to resuscitate a comatose peace process - but only on Palestinian terms. In addition to forcing an Israeli settlement freeze, Abbas wants Obama to propose a detailed American peace plan. He also is seeking a large-scale release of prisoners held by Israel, but that could help Hamas more than Abbas because Hamas has what Israel wants, Gilad Schalit, and Binyamin Netanyahu would have to make his deal with Hamas, which would then reap credit for the swap. That poses a dilemma for Netanyahu, who wants to be the one who brought Schalit home, but he doesn't want to do anything that will benefit Hamas. ABBAS CRAWLED out on a limb with Obama in demanding a total settlement freeze; Israel refused and Obama climbed back down. If Abbas refuses to follow, he has no negotiations to point to, but if he does he loses face among voters who will see him as weak and caving in to Israel even before the talks can begin. However, Abbas is not without some bragging rights. He can remind voters that the West Bank, unlike Gaza, has a healthy and growing economy, no domination by Islamic extremists, improved security cooperation with Israel and growing international stature. Nonetheless, he presides over a weak, dysfunctional and deeply divided Palestinian Authority. Abbas may blame Obama for raising expectations and Netanyahu for not meeting them, but his biggest problem is at home. The Palestinian national movement is bitterly divided between those who want to build a secular national state alongside Israel and those who want to destroy Israel and establish an Islamic republic from the sea to the river. The stagnation is also a problem for President Obama, who made relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and building momentum toward a conflict-ending agreement a top foreign policy goal for the first year of his presidency. But unless there is a dramatic breakthrough in the next three weeks, his trip to Oslo (an ironic locale in this case) to accept his Nobel Peace Prize on December 10 will be a disappointing one.