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Will Abbas's rising clout be hurt by Netanyahu meeting?

Palestinian polls show Abbas gaining significant support in recent months over Hamas, which harshly criticized his willingness to meet the Israeli leader without a settlement freeze in place.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 2009

Palestinians work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit on Tuesday, before the US-hosted talks in New York.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Jerusalem

Heading into a US-brokered meeting Tuesday morning with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is facing deep pessimism from his own people about the prospect of peace – and a severe attack on his credibility by Hamas.

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President Abbas's popularity among Palestinians had risen significantly in recent months, potentially giving him more clout as a negotiator. But scathing criticism from Hamas over his agreement to meet Mr. Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York could eat into those gains.

In a statement sent to reporters in Gaza, Hamas said it was "truly shocked" that Mr. Abbas accepted President Barack Obama's invitation for the talks, given that Abbas has insisted for months that he would not meet Netanyahu without a freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank.

"This means that Abbas has yielded to Israel and the US and retreats from his stance," said Hamas, calling Abbas's decision "a submission to the Zionists." The Islamic movement, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for over two years, called on Abbas "to immediately stop his political rush and stop yielding to Zionist dictations," adding that he should first achieve Palestinian unity.

A Palestinian reconciliation deal to bring Hamas and Fatah together has remained elusive and Abbas is taking a risk by agreeing to a high-profile summit in the absence of the settlement freeze sought by Obama since his June 4 policy speech in Cairo. The Washington Times on Tuesday reported that the Israelis had offered a temporary freeze for six to nine months that would exclude 2,500 units already approved for construction, but such a deal has not been made public and could not immediately be verified.

Abbas gained in polls against Hamas leader

But recent polls have given Abbas a reason to believe that most Palestinians are behind him and will likely accept his going out on a limb to talk to Israel in the name of achieving Palestinian statehood.

"Abbas is certainly stronger, and the public gives him more support now than it did for some time. But the fact that he feels stronger is giving him courage that he didn't have before, and because of that, I think he'll be tougher vis-a-vis the US and Israel," says Khalil Shikaki, director of The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), a Ramallah-based polling organization. "He'd been accused of being a weak president, but now that he has legitimacy and has Fatah behind him, perhaps he feels he can stand up to the American and Israelis and say no to them."

PCPSR found in its most recent poll – conducted in mid-August – that support for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) he leads was rising while support for Hamas was sinking. Since the organization's previous poll in May, there has been a significant widening in the gap between the level of support for Abbas and for Ismail Haniyeh, the former prime minister in a joint Hamas-Fatah government that dissolved after Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Specifically, 52 percent supported Abbas and 38 percent supported Mr. Haniyeh in the most recent poll. Their previous support figures were 49 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

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