Obama visit: Abbas brings Palestinian cause, but not support, to Washington

Not only are Fatah and Hamas deadlocked in a power struggle. Abbas’s own Fatah bloc has rejected his new government.

United States State Department/Reuters
On the eve of his White House meeting with Obama on Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dined with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came to meet President Barack Obama on Thursday to discuss the future of Middle East peace.

But he is hobbled by the present instability back home.

Not only are Palestinians bitterly divided between Hamas and Fatah, estranged by politics, geography, and Israeli restrictions on their movement. Now Mr. Abbas's main support base in his government – the Fatah bloc of lawmakers – has summarily rejected the cabinet he cobbled together last week in what critics call a rushed attempt to present Mr. Obama with a sound negotiating partner.

"The idea was to form a government that would arm Abu Mazen [Abbas] with something stable before he met with Obama, but it backfired," says Hani el-Masri, head of Badael, the Palestine Media, Research and Studies Center here.

"It was a rush to establish a new government by ignoring the internal conflicts and the Hamas-Fatah dialogue," says Mr. Masri. "Instead, they should have postponed forming a new government until after the meeting with Obama, and waited at least until July."

Abbas promised disgruntled party members that he would hold a Fatah Congress on July 1 to determine the way forward. It's not yet clear whether the congress – which would be the first of its kind in 20 years – will be held, and if so, where.

Also in early July, talks between Hamas and Fatah, which was forced to leave Gaza in June 2007 after violent clashes with Hamas, are scheduled to resume in Cairo. Many here believe that a reconciliation agreement, presumably leading to some form of national unity government, is the only way for Palestinians to present even a nominally united front in peace talks with Israel.

That Abbas jumped ahead with installing a new government without waiting either for the reconciliation talks – or the major gathering of Fatah politicos – was taken as a sign he didn't put much value in either.

"Hamas has made a lot of mistakes and has stopped things from moving forward," says Masri. "But had Abbas really wanted the dialogue to proceed, he would have shown some flexibility."

But even a unity Fatah-Hamas government would face daunting challenges at the peace table. Israel, which announced Thursday that it had killed a prominent Hamas militant in the West Bank, has refused to deal with the group. Both Israel and the US considers Hamas a terrorist organization, but Obama has given some indications that his administration may be open to dealing with a unity government.

Overlooked, rank-and-file rebels

Abbas's fellow Fatah members were affronted by his announcement last week of a new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, infuriated that they were not consulted in picking his inner circle.

Azzam el-Ahmad, the leader of the Fatah bloc in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), says Abbas totally overlooked the rank-and-file representatives, elected in the January 2006 elections.

"The Fatah bloc should be the backbone of the government," says Mr. Ahmad. "We're a hard-working unit that should not have been ignored during consultations on the formation of the government."

He acknowledges that there was, however, mounting pressure on Abbas to improve his government's standing over the last one, dubbed a "caretaker government" because it was meant to be a temporary solution to the political crisis. Mr. Fayyad had submitted his resignation in March.

"The government suffered from lack of professionals who could carry serious political weight in the past year, especially during the war in Gaza. We needed a stronger presence, and at times the people were disappointed with the performance of some ministers," Ahmad says.

One small step for Palestinian democracy

The Fatah representatives have clearly made themselves heard in the past week with their threat to ban the government of Abbas – this despite the fact that he is chairman of Fatah. They expect a shift in attitude. "Abu Mazen will take us more seriously now, and we'll agree to go back to the government if we sort out our problems with him," says Ahmad.

Abbas still has four ministerial spots to distribute, which can serve to help patch things up. One position is slated to go to Rabeha Diab. She was offered the Ministry of Women's Affairs, but in solidarity with the rest of Fatah, she turned it down.

"We created a positive commotion. Suddenly, people see we have the power to reject. We can stand up against our leadership if we see that something is wrong, and we've become stronger because of this," Ms. Diab said in an interview in the PLC headquarters here.

In other words, that's one small leap for Palestinian democracy. But it's also a setback for Abbas's drive to gird himself for his work in Washington, in Cairo, and ultimately, with a new Israeli government that has so far declined to make any endorsement of the two-state solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that to start negotiations, the Palestinians must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state – something Hamas has spurned.

Abbas indicated this week that he will set similar preconditions before resuming negotiations: that Israel recognize the Palestinians' right to a state and that it freeze settlement expansion.

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