Palestinians debate their goal: compromise or victory

Arafat and Abbas feuded this week over how much ground to yield to Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, found his toughest battles this week weren't with Israelis, but with fellow Palestinians.

Tuesday, Mr. Abbas came under heavy fire from members of his Fatah party who mocked and denigrated his performance to date. On Wednesday, Fatah officials proposed curbing the power of Abbas's security minister, Mohammed Dahlan.

"People are clarifying where they stand, with the old school or the new school," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem. "This is the chapter where people begin to change their seats. It's a dangerous time."

Mr. Abdul-Hadi, who describes the events of this week as an "open storm," describes the Palestinian political culture clash as one between incremental success and total victory. New polls suggest that the Palestinian public could throw its weight behind either camp, depending on events in the coming weeks and months.

The internal upheaval disrupted peace talks with the Israelis and comes at a dangerously delicate stage in the nascent peace process with Israel. It reflects tension between Abbas and PA President Yasser Arafat and the two cultures they represent - the relatively new ethos of negotiation clashing with the historical embrace of revolution.

The outcome of this struggle will have profound implications, shaping Palestinian prospects for statehood and the nature of the Palestinian relationship with Israel and the US.

This week the US announced that for the first time that it would directly aid the PA with a $20 million payment, in a significant gesture of support for Abbas.

The Palestinian prime minister, a slightly stooped, gray-faced man who hides behind large glasses, was appointed at US and Israeli urging over Mr. Arafat's resistance. Abbas has never sought office and remains, at heart, a technocrat who thinks in terms of possible success.

"Dialogue, negotiations, delivering as much as he can, making small successes - filling the glass with as much water as possible," says Abdul-Hadi, describing Abbas's style as emerging from the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s.

At best, it's a work ethic that makes for slow and steady progress that may never have the bravura moments preferred by Arafat, whose public persona comes across as color to Abbas's black and white.

"Charisma, ego, ambition, national pride - 'revolution until victory,' " says Abdul-Hadi, quoting an old Fatah slogan to describe Arafat, who often speaks in terms of revolutionary triumphs.

Arafat, who heads Fatah, is widely considered to have orchestrated Abbas' clash Tuesday with members of the party's Central Committee. Abbas resigned from the group later but said he would remain as prime minister.

Fatah members complain that Abbas is yielding too much to Israel and not getting enough in return. They complain about the symbolism of his meetings with Israelis in Jerusalem, which they say validate Israeli claims to the entire city.

Prisoners are a larger problem. On Sunday, Israel offered to release hundreds of the 6,000 to 7,000 Palestinians it holds as a goodwill gesture.

Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad demanded major prisoner releases in return for a three-month period of quiet. Hamas now says it will renew attacks unless Israel releases its men.

While the US asked Israel this week to release more detainees, Israeli officials, citing security, will not release men with "blood on their hands."

The prisoner release is important not just for the ceasefire, but because Palestinians need to see results for all the talk, says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

Palestinian support for Abbas is falling, Mr. Shikaki says, slipping from 61 percent in April to 52 percent in a poll of over 1,300 people he conducted in mid-June.

Most Palestinians see little difference in their lives since the US-backed road map peace plan was launched June 4. While Israeli troops pulled back from northern Gaza and from Bethlehem, they remain just outside those areas.

Freedom of movement, dismantling settlements and the outposts used to expand them, along with further troop withdrawals would make a difference to Palestinians and to Abbas' fortunes.

"If Abu Mazen is able to deliver on some or most of these elements, I believe he will regain the support he has lost," says Shikaki, using Abbas's popular nom de guerre.

The June poll reveals a public torn between the competing Abbas and Arafat philosophies and highlights the delicacy of this moment. The prime minister's support may be slipping, but he has steady majority backing for his policies of engaging Israel and pursuing peace talks.

Yet for the first time in 10 years of polling, Shikaki found support for Hamas in Gaza outweighed backing for the mainstream Fatah.

And while 73 percent back a year-long ceasefire, 58 percent of Palestinians said that if Hamas decided to resume violent resistance, they would back that decision.

"There's a lot of fragility in the situation," says Shikaki.

Former Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat argues Abbas is hobbled by Israeli intransigence and a lack of US forcefulness. "You can't say negotiations have begun with Sharon. He is still trying to dictate to us the terms," Mr. Erakat says. "And the US says it wants to help, but they don't introduce a comprehensive implementation of the road map - no real prisoner release, no withdrawal from our territories, no lifting of the siege.

"That's how you help Abu Mazen," Mr. Erakat says, acknowledging that if Abbas loses this battle there are few who could take his place and deal with the US and Israel right now. "Every possible effort must be made to help him. We have very limited options as far as leadership is concerned."

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