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Obama visit: Abbas brings Palestinian cause, but not support, to Washington

Not only are Fatah and Hamas deadlocked in a power struggle. Abbas’s own Fatah bloc has rejected his new government.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2009

On the eve of his White House meeting with Obama on Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dined with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.

United States State Department/Reuters

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Ramallah, West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came to meet President Barack Obama on Thursday to discuss the future of Middle East peace.

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But he is hobbled by the present instability back home.

Not only are Palestinians bitterly divided between Hamas and Fatah, estranged by politics, geography, and Israeli restrictions on their movement. Now Mr. Abbas's main support base in his government – the Fatah bloc of lawmakers – has summarily rejected the cabinet he cobbled together last week in what critics call a rushed attempt to present Mr. Obama with a sound negotiating partner.

"The idea was to form a government that would arm Abu Mazen [Abbas] with something stable before he met with Obama, but it backfired," says Hani el-Masri, head of Badael, the Palestine Media, Research and Studies Center here.

"It was a rush to establish a new government by ignoring the internal conflicts and the Hamas-Fatah dialogue," says Mr. Masri. "Instead, they should have postponed forming a new government until after the meeting with Obama, and waited at least until July."

Abbas promised disgruntled party members that he would hold a Fatah Congress on July 1 to determine the way forward. It's not yet clear whether the congress – which would be the first of its kind in 20 years – will be held, and if so, where.

Also in early July, talks between Hamas and Fatah, which was forced to leave Gaza in June 2007 after violent clashes with Hamas, are scheduled to resume in Cairo. Many here believe that a reconciliation agreement, presumably leading to some form of national unity government, is the only way for Palestinians to present even a nominally united front in peace talks with Israel.

That Abbas jumped ahead with installing a new government without waiting either for the reconciliation talks – or the major gathering of Fatah politicos – was taken as a sign he didn't put much value in either.

"Hamas has made a lot of mistakes and has stopped things from moving forward," says Masri. "But had Abbas really wanted the dialogue to proceed, he would have shown some flexibility."

But even a unity Fatah-Hamas government would face daunting challenges at the peace table. Israel, which announced Thursday that it had killed a prominent Hamas militant in the West Bank, has refused to deal with the group. Both Israel and the US considers Hamas a terrorist organization, but Obama has given some indications that his administration may be open to dealing with a unity government.

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