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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

"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.

The organization says the shift is likely due to the popular Fatah congress held in Bethlehem in August and improving security conditions in the West Bank. There is also a "noticeable decrease in public perception of the existence of corruption in PA institutions under Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad," the PCPSR said in its report on the August survey.

The survey included Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and their numbers roughly reflected the proportion of Palestinians in each of those areas. All surveys were done in person.

Palestinian opinion hard to categorize

But looking at the bigger picture, there's an overwhelming pessimism among Palestinians about the ability of their leaders to get to a peace deal with Israel. Sixty-nine percent of those polled, including West Bankers and Gazans, said they believe that the chances for establishing an independent Palestinian state next to Israel in the next five years are slim or nonexistent.

Moreover, some of the positions that Israel and the US are asking Abbas to adopt will be hard to sell to the Palestinian public. For example, only about half of Palestinians say they will accept a mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for Palestinian people. A majority of those polled – 61 percent – say they oppose a peace deal based on "the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative."

The reference is to talks under former President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 and to an unofficial blueprint for peace developed by prominent Israelis and Palestinians, including former negotiators in the Oslo peace process.

Both drafts presented similar solutions to a variety of difficult issues, including Jerusalem, refugees, and borders. A large number of Palestinians expressed opposition to those plans because of their dislike of solutions presented on individual issues. For example, only 24 percent of Palestinians say they would support the idea of a Palestinian state with no army, a drop from the 36 percent figure when the poll was first held in 2003.

The polls show how hard it is to categorize the Palestinian public's views. On some matters, Palestinians remains closer to the viewpoint of Hamas than that of Abbas, explains Dr. Shikaki, referring to the Palestinian leader by his nom de guerre, Abu Mazen.

"On the question of violence, most Palestinians are with the Hamas position and not Abu Mazen's," adds Shikaki. "They believe that violence has been helpful in achieving their national rights. But on the issue of two-state solution, they do take a position that is closer to Abu Mazen."

Arabs criticize Obama, too

Mr. Obama has come under fire from Arab commentators for pressuring Abbas to attend the meeting despite US envoy George Mitchell's failure to secure promises of a settlement freeze from Israel.

"Obama bent down to all of Netanyahu's pressures and withdrew from the battle of the settlements that he had engaged in the last period," wrote Abed-El-Bari Utwan, the longtime editor in chief of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in London. "Obama put [Abbas] in an embarrassing situation by making him attend a meeting with Netanyahu after having announced to his people that he would only do such a thing after Israel commits itself to the settlement freeze."

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They left Philadelphia to live in the West Bank?The Allons simply wanted more space at the right price. Read about how they and other Israeli settlers see their decision to live at the center of a global dispute. Read more.

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