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Why Mahmoud Abbas is so committed to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resists pressure to extend a settlement freeze, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas faces mounting criticism for remaining in peace talks.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / October 6, 2010

A Palestinian girl looks out of a window between banners with photos of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (l.) and President Mahmoud Abbas, as she watches a student celebration in the West Bank city of Jenin, Oct. 6.

Mohammed Ballas/AP


Ramallah, West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now in political limbo after having staked his career on the questionable proposition that a viable Palestinian state can be achieved through negotiations with Israel.

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Negotiations are what make Mr. Abbas tick. But the direct talks with Israel, which began a month ago at the White House, are in danger of collapse after Israel's refused last week to renew a moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

As a top member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s, it was Abbas who established contact with dovish Jews and Israelis, and he was the Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo agreement with Israel on Palestinian self-rule. Unlike the late PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and other PLO leaders who used armed struggle and violence, Abbas has always tended to prioritize diplomacy.

''Yasser Arafat had the olive branch and the gun. Abbas only has negotiations,'' says Mahmoud Ramhi, a Hamas representative of the Palestinian Legislative Council who is highly critical of Abbas.

Sticking with talks

Last month, at the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas stressed that the Palestinians are still adhering to the path of negotiation. ''In spite of the historic injustice, the desire to achieve a just peace guaranteeing rights and freedom has not diminished. Our wounded hands are still able to carry the olive branch from the rubble of the trees the occupation uproots every day.''

But having vowed not to engage in direct negotiations unless Israel reinstates the partial moratorium on the building of settlements, Abbas is signaling he is not willing to talk at any cost – at least for now. ''Israel must choose between peace and the settlements,'' he said in his UN speech.

Abbas's stress on diplomacy has gained him US support, funds for the Palestinian Authority, and wide international respect. But his lack of armed struggle credentials is anathema to many Palestinians.

Discontent with Abbas

At the entrance to al-Amary refugee camp near Ramallah, an arch has been erected proclaiming it the ''citadel of President Mahmoud Abbas.'' But inside the local branch of Abbas's Fatah movement, the sentiment does not back up the sign.

''He has never visited the camp and he sent someone in his name for the cornerstone laying of the arch,'' says Ahmed Issa, a young activist. ''He has done nothing for us on all levels. He is stopping the resistance and arresting resistance fighters."

Mahmoud Abu al-Ayan, a former member of Fatah's Aksa brigades militia, adds: ''I blame [Abbas] for preventing us from resisting. Negotations won't bring us forward. They will only drag things from worse to worse.'' He spoke wistfully of Arafat once visiting the camp and kissing the mother of a martyr.