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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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.

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''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.

The youths were watching a television station from Jordan broadcasting militant resistance songs, something banned from the official Palestinian Authority airwaves in keeping with Abbas's philosophy. ''This is a revolution of self esteem and we are prepared to confront the occupation,'' the singer crooned over the television.

Support for Abbas

But Abbas has supporters, too. They credit him with improving the Palestinian position on the world stage.

"On the diplomatic front, he's proven to the world the problem is not the Palestinians, it's elsewhere. He should continue to rally foreign support while mobilizing grassroots non-violent resistance to the occupation," says Dimitri Diliani, 35, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Abbas backers are placing their hopes on President Obama being more inclined to pressure Israel once the November congressional elections are over, reasoning that then Mr. Obama will need not defer to the pro-Israel lobby. Obama has said Israel should extend the settlement moratorium but thus far has not publicly tried to strongarm Israel on the issue.

Betting on Obama

At Abbas's urging, the Arab League will also be taking up the issue, after a Palestinian leadership grouping headed by Abbas on Saturday decided there will be no talks unless Israel reinstates the freeze.

In the view of Uri Avnery, the head of Israel's Gush Shalom peace group, who has spent many hours with Abbas over the years, the Palestinian president's fate is in the hands of Obama.

''Contrary to Arafat who tried diplomacy, violence, activating the Israeli peace camp, and other ways, Abbas has bet all his chips on the Americans and Obama.'' Mr. Avnery says. ''If America will not provide the pressure on Israel, Abbas will fail.... Until now Obama has failed to provide the goods and Abbas's position is frail.''

Abbas's background

Abbas was born in Safed in what is now northern Israel in 1935. His family was among the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave at Israel's establishment in 1948.

In exile in Qatar, he joined Yasser Arafat as a founder of Fatah in the late 1950s. He studied law in Egypt before doing a doctorate in Moscow on ''the secret relationship between Nazism and Zionism." In 1980, he was appointed head of the PLO's department for national and international relations and it was in that capacity that he helped guide the secret talks leading to the Oslo agreement to fruition.

Abbas criticized suicide bombings and stressed that the ''militarization'' of the second intifada uprising, which started in 2000, was causing a heavy toll on Palestinians in fatalities and damage. He warned that Hamas's use of rocket attacks against Israel would bring heavy destruction on Gaza, a prophecy that came true nearly two years ago with the Israeli Army's devastating Operation Cast Lead.

Ramhi, the Hamas leader, who was released after three years in Israeli jail several months ago, predicts that Abbas will eventually back down from his refusal to negotiate with Israel while it builds settlements. ''It is a tactic and then they will return," he says. They said they would stop direct negotiations, meaning indirect ones are acceptable."

Ramhi believes Abbas's path will never end occupation.

''Any people who are under occupation have to fight this occupation," says Rahmi. "There is no example in the world of people reaching liberation without sacrifice and resistance. We understand resistance has a big price. But without resistance we can't achieve anything.''

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