Abbas mired in struggle

After 100 days, the Palestinian president faces criticism for the lack of progress in the territories.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A line from Mahmoud Abbas's inauguration speech in January has proven prescient: "The way forward will not be easy."

Mr. Abbas has succeeded in forging a crucial cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants. In March and April, there have been no Israeli fatalities, the longest such stretch since the intifada started in 2000. During the same period, six Palestinians were killed, says the Israeli human rights group Btselem.

Abbas is credited with maintaining a protracted calm in this volatile region as well as improving Palestinians' image abroad. But as he marked the 100th day of his presidential term Sunday, even many of Abbas's supporters conceded that he has failed on several key fronts.

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Unable to persuade Israel to ease its strictures on movement in the West Bank, he has brought little improvement to Palestinian daily life, despite high hopes from voters who overwhelmingly endorsed him three months ago.

"I cannot say he has been successful," says Mamduh Nofal, a columnist for the al-Ayam newspaper who supports Abbas. "He has faced a lot of obstacles and problems, chief among them [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, who has not given him anything."

Israel has largely kept its checkpoints in place, citing continued threats of Palestinian attacks. Palestinians expected a rapid transfer of five West Bank cities to their control after the Feb. 8 summit meeting between Mr. Sharon and Abbas in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt at which the cease-fire was announced.

After extended negotiations, Jericho and Tulkarem were transferred in March, but not their environs. Israel then suspended the transfer of other West Bank cities, saying Palestinian forces had not met their security obligations, including disarming fugitives in Jericho and Tulkarem, something Abbas disputes.

Also during Abbas's brief tenure, Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners following the Egypt summit, but there has been scant progress on further releases demanded by the Palestinians.

The Israeli government has given Abbas little credit for the cease-fire, stressing instead that it is being used by militant groups to rebuild their capabilities. It has repeatedly criticized Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for not dismantling the militias.

"Our ongoing and adamant demand is that at the end of the day, Abu Mazen must face up to the terror and strip it of its weapons, not only because he has committed himself to this in the road map [peace blueprint] but because by not doing so he is endangering the Palestinian Authority," Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim was quoted as saying last week by Israel's Y-net news agency. "Abu Mazen's time is running out."

Uri Avnery, head of the dovish Israeli group Gush Shalom, says that such talk is aimed at convincing Washington that Israel has no peace partner despite the achievement of the cease-fire. "This cease-fire is being ignored by the Israeli public and the government, it is being taken for granted."

In Mr. Avnery's view, Israel is not interested in seeing Abbas succeed, something Israeli officials deny. "Sharon is drawing the borders of Israel unilaterally according to demography, water, and military requirements."

But criticism of Abbas is coming from Palestinians, as well. Palestinian analysts and some politicians say Yasser Arafat's successor is projecting weakness on law and order issues.

The deteriorating domestic situation was evident last Sunday when gunmen from Fatah's militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, blocked traffic and took over a public building in Jenin. The incident comes two weeks after Al Aqsa gunmen fired shots in Abbas's compound and then went on a shooting spree in Ramallah. Abbas vowed that the gunmen would be punished but there have been no arrests.

"This makes him look weak," says Saadi Krunz, a Fatah legislator from the Gaza Strip and former minister. "And if you are weak in internal affairs, it reflects on your relations with Israel and the Americans."

Abbas is due to visit the US for talks with President Bush in May. Mr. Bush has urged Abbas to make internal reforms of the Palestinian Authority a priority. In a significant step toward that end, Abbas appointed three new security chiefs Sunday.

"I think he is succeeding in projecting a new image of Palestinians to the world rather than the image that prevailed in the Arafat period," says Khader Abu Abarra, a West Bank analyst. "He is saying to the world, you can trust us because we are doing what we are saying. He is not two-faced, he is honest."

Azmi Shueibi, a legislator, says the record has been mixed. "No one can say that he did not succeed in the internal dialogue with Hamas and other factions." But, Mr. Shueibi says, his inability thus far to assert control over Fatah could undermine his domestic agenda.

"If he fails to reunite Fatah, this will also affect his plans to reform the security forces because many of the leaders of the security forces are from his party," Shueibi says.

Asked about Abbas's record, the West Bank spokesman of militant Hamas, Hassan Youssef, says: "We are somehow satisfied with his public behavior and policy and his openness to dialogue with the opposition. But on the ground, the Palestinian citizen hasn't felt any tangible change."

Hamas could capitalize on that in the July legislative election, which, says Shueibi, will be a major test of Abbas's mettle. "The question is not only what will be the results, but whether Fatah goes into the vote as a strong, united body."

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