Abbas agrees to fresh Israeli-Palestinian talks in Egypt, but has little support at home

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed today to meet again in two weeks. But Mr. Abbas has little support at home for the talks, even among allies.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Monroe Room of the State Department in Washington, September 2.

When Israeli-Palestinian peace talks move beyond today's summit in Washington, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will face a tough balancing act as even his allies at home push back against US and Israeli pressures.

Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed today to meet again in two weeks, most likely in Egypt, and set up a framework for reaching a deal within a year.

Abbas, who in recent weeks has spoken of being under unbearable pressure, and his colleagues in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) know that they have little alternative to going along with the United States and its Arab allies. After all, Abbas has staked his tenure on a negotiated peace with Israel, opposed a violent uprising, and allied himself with the West.

"Abbas has been frank and truthful… He never said he had two options," says Mohanned Abdel Hammid, a political commentator for the Al Ayyam newspaper. "The balance of power in Palestine has always been in favor of the majority rule – which is Fatah."

But skepticism toward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is so widespread among Palestinians that even peace proponents in Abbas's own Fatah party and the umbrella PLO oppose the talks.

Unclear when Abbas's line of credit will run out

Despite such reservations – fueled in part by doubts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means business – Abbas won a halfhearted blessing from enough political backers to start the talks.

Those allies have been convinced that it's not in the Palestinians' interest to defy an international community that is pushing for talks and allow Israel to portray themselves as obstructionists.

It's unclear, however, when that line of credit will run out.

"Abbas cannot avoid the invitation from Obama," Nabil Amr, a member of the PLO's legislative body, said on the eve of the talks. "There are many factions in the PLO against these negotiations. He is in a difficult position.''

Opponents of the talks organized a demonstration Wednesday. But amid widespread Palestinian apathy, it drew only drew a few hundred protesters. The groups participating in the rally included longtime critics of talks with Israel, such as the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is headquartered in Syria.

"Had 20,000 people showed up today, Abbas would withdraw from talks," said Hani el Masri, a political commentator who spoke out against the talks at the rally. "But the opposition is still nascent…. The factions are fossilized and have distanced themselves from the people.''

Fatah more popular than Hamas

Abbas' Fatah party currently enjoys an advantage in public opinion over the most potent peace process opponent, Hamas. A June poll of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, conducted by a Ramallah-based survey group, found that Fatah enjoyed a 19 percentage point advantage over Hamas in support for the Palestinian legislature. Abbas leads Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh by a 16 percentage-point margin.

That said, if Israel were to resume expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank after a 10-month settlement freeze expires Sept. 26, the tenuous approval within the party for Abbas' participation is likely to erode. Also at issue is the 500-mile-long security barrier that Israel is nearly finished erecting after a wave of suicide attackers from the West Bank killed more than 1,000 Israelis in the second intifada.

"You can't negotiate when they are building settlements and completing the wall," says Kadoura Fares, a Fatah member who is a former Palestinian cabinet minister. "That injures the faith of the people in Abbas."

Abbas's political fortunes within the PLO depend on his ability to win concessions and gestures from Israel and the international community, say analysts. Substantial progress toward a Palestinian state could also shore up support.

"If Abbas can prove that this was right, it can stop radicals. It is very important that these negotiations achieve something," says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "Even if it narrows the gap, or paves the way for future negotiations, it will undermine radicals on both sides."

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