Abbas recasts himself as key Palestinian negotiator

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wound up a trip to the US by meeting with President Bush Wednesday.

Once dismissed as a lame duck after his Fatah party was routed in January elections, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is angling to reemerge as the linchpin in the peace process with Israel.

But as he wound up a trip to the US Wednesday by meeting with President Bush, the Palestinian moderate's unity coalition blueprint with the ruling Hamas militant group may have fallen short of bridging the gap between Islamic militants and the international community. That could leave Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in a precarious position when he returns home.

If Abbas fails to convince Hamas of the need to be more explicit in accepting international demands of recognizing Israel, honoring peace agreements, and renouncing violence, he could find himself back in a domestic showdown with Hamas rather than as the point man for negotiations with Israel, analysts say.

"Abu Mazen's options are limited because if he decides to resist the American pressures, he will be declared irrelevant," wrote Hani el-Masri in the Al Ayyam newspaper, "and if he accepts their conditions he will lose his credibility with the Palestinian public."

Abbas's credibility with the Palestinian public has been weak ever since his administration failed to fulfill campaign promises to reform or clean up corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas's landslide victory last January seemed to marginalize Abbas even more. But an international aid boycott of the Hamas-led government left the PA insolvent, and has left Abbas as the only Palestinian leader Western governments want to work with.

New dialogue with Israel

After months of the cold shoulder from Israel, the Palestinian leader met in New York Monday with Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, who described the new dialogue as "important" and called for more talks. The bilateral relationship would be strengthened further if Israel and the Palestinians reach a compromise to swap abducted soldier Gilad Shalit in return for Palestinian security prisoners.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas officials awaited word on whether the unity government plan would enable the Palestinian president to convince the US and Europe to lift an international aid boycott of the insolvent Palestinian Authority.

Abbas nearly convinced Hamas to sign on to a unity government platform that contained an endorsement of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a recognition of previous peace agreements, and an Arab peace plan that implicitly recognized Israel. But the talks halted at the end of last week.

"We want to see what the feedback is," said Ahmed Yousef, a political aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who reiterated Hamas's longstanding opposition to recognizing Israel. "We still have a lot of reservations on the recognition of Israel's right to exist. We are the ones who have a right to be recognized by Israel."

Abbas's key role

With Israel embracing Abbas as the only Palestinian official it can do business with, and Hamas giving the Palestinian president the green light to lead negotiations, Abbas seems indispensable as the only go-between. But even if Abbas succeeds in resolving the brewing unity government crisis, many question whether Abbas has enough political clout to sell a permanent peace deal.

"It's very clear his greatest asset is that he can be an interlocutor with the Israelis and he can move the peace process," says Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Despite being in office for a year and a half, Abbas has been unable to capitalize on the paralysis brought on by Hamas's short tenure.

A poll released by Mr. ShikakiMonday showed that even though 54 percent of Palestinians were dissatisfied with the performance of the Hamas-led government, Abbas's approval rating has remained essentially unchanged at 55 percent and his Fatah party still trails the Islamic militants in popularity.

"The president's ability to communicate with the public is very poor," says Shikaki. "It's clear that he hasn't been able to take advantage of the difficulties that the [Hamas-led] government has been through. The overall picture the public has is of a weak leader unable to project solid leadership, that's why his popularity has stagnated."

To be sure, if talks on a national unity government conclude successfully, Abbas would be able chalk up two achievements: forcing Hamas to relinquish control over Palestinian ministries and moderating the Islamic militant's position on peace talks with Israel.

That has dovetailed with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's need to demonstrate to the US and Europe some sign of progress in relations with Palestinians.

"Even though we don't have a magic wand to create a dramatic turning point in the very sad reality of the Palestinian Authority, in my eyes it's very important to hold these talks," said Foreign Minister Livni in an interview with Israel Radio. "This is an important channel that needs to be left open."

Israel is bracing for pressure from the West on progress with the Palestinians as a way of adding Arab countries to a coalition to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, explains Yossi Alpher, the editor of the Israeli-Palestinian online journal, "BitterLemons.org."

"There's a sense that all of this can come together, with a unity government, a prisoner exchange, peace talks, and a cease-fire," Mr. Alpher says. "So Abu Mazen can benefit from this regardless of his status."

And although Alpher says Abbas doesn't have the internal authority now to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian analysts say that the time has come to call Hamas out on its refusal to be more flexible on the conditions of the international community.

"Abu Mazen must try again with Hamas, because we have no choice," says Abdel Majid Sweilem, a political-science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. "If the national unity government fails it means we are headed toward an internal conflict."

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