How lonely must it be to be Mahmoud Abbas?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is losing support at home as Hamas' star rises. While he's trying to regain relevance with a UN bid this week, the US and Israel are working against him.

Nasser Ishtayeh
Yesterday. And today.

As Israel veered close to a ground invasion of Gaza last week, with Israeli warplanes and artillery pounding Gaza, and Hamas directing rocket fire towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time ever, one name was on nobody's lips: Mahmoud Abbas

Mr. Abbas may be president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of Fatah, the political party founded by Palestinian Liberation Organization icon Yasser Arafat. But during days of shuttle diplomacy involving Hamas, Israel, the US, Egypt, and other regional powers, Abbas was basically the lonely guy in the corner, hoping someone would eventually ask him to dance.

With the exception of a brief visit from Hillary Clinton, no one ever did. Now in the West Bank today, Abbas's Palestinian Authority is presiding over the exhumation of Mr. Arafat's body (his widow has been insisting of late that his 2004 death was the result of polonium poisoning) while Hamas negotiates with Israel via Egyptian intelligence officials over further easing of the economic blockade of Gaza.

In short, Abbas is rapidly becoming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's forgotten man. The moribund "peace process" that Abbas has championed for more than 20 years has not led to the creation of a Palestinian state, nor stopped the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have steadily chipped away at the size of a theoretical future state. Attacks inside Israel and against settlers have plummeted since the end of the second intifada seven years ago and he's recognized Israel's right to exist, yet restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank remain severe.

Cooperation versus confrontation

Abbas has been highly cooperative with the Israeli military and police in the West Bank. In the eyes of many Palestinians, he has secured Israeli interests at the expense of their own.

The West Bank is more prosperous than hemmed-in Gaza and able to trade with Israel. But Abbas' support, and that of his prime minister Salam Fayyad, has been steadily eroding while Hamas has once more taken up the mantle of the brave "resistance." 

The Islamist Hamas, which took control of Gaza after drubbing Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections (largely due to an electorate fed up with Fatah corruption and abuses of power), now seems a more vital political force than its bitter rival. Senior Hamas leaders have been claiming vindication for their policy of confrontation with Israel over Fatah's commitment to negotiation.  

In a swipe at Fatah, Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told the Associated Press last week that negotiations with Israel not backed by the threat of arms are doomed to fail. To be sure, what concessions, if any, Israel will actually deliver as part of the ceasefire are uncertain.

Gulf Arab states have been shifting their attentions from Fatah to Hamas in recent years. In October, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, became the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007 and promised $400 million in aid.

Hamas has largely been backed by Iran in the past decade. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US by Al Qaeda, the US put pressure on Saudi Arabia and other close friends among the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Gulf to cut support from what the US deems a terrorist organization and they mostly complied. Shiite and ethnically Persian Iran, in the middle of its own cold war for influence with the likes of Saudi Arabia, happily stepped into the breach, providing the longer range missiles that today threaten Tel Aviv. Iran's ally Syria, too, became a major backer of the group.

Hamas reaching out to Sunni Arabs

But now Hamas is reaching out once more to the Sunni Arabs with whom it has more natural ties. The Sunni-led uprising against the Assad dictatorship Syria has strained the alliance with Iran. Hamas' exiled leaders who had made Damascus their base for years decamped earlier this year and sided with the uprising, even as Iran continued to staunchly back Assad.

"Iran's position in the Arab world, it's no longer a good position," because of its support for Assad in Syria, Abu Marzouk told reporters yesterday. "Iran asked Hamas to adopt a closer position to Syria. Hamas refused, and this has affected our relationship with Iran."

He might as well have said to the Saudis: "We're waiting by the phone." Will Saudi Arabia grasp an opportunity to permanently wean Hamas off Iran? They may, and if so Abbas will find himself with one fewer friend.

What can he do to swing some political momentum back in his direction? The odds of even a partial Israeli settlement freeze any time soon are zero, with that country's elections coming up and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeing no percentage in making concessions to the PA anyways. So that leaves unilateral action – precisely the course Abbas is now pursuing.

Bid at United Nations

He's vowed to seek a vote at the UN General Assembly on Thursday on granting Palestine "observer state" status at the UN, an upgrade from its current "observer entity" status. While this sounds like semantics, the upgrade would give Palestine more standing in front of UN bodies – for instance the ability to make complaints to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The move has infuriated the US and Israel and they've been lobbying furiously to have Abbas pull back, even though it's one of the few steps he can take to bolster his own secular, more Israel-friendly movement Fatah over Hamas.

Israel has been threatening to cut off the flow of tax receipts to Abbas' and Fayyad's government in response. And the US isn't mincing words.

"We’ve obviously been very clear that we do not think that this step is going to bring the Palestinian people any closer to a state, that we think it is a mistake, that we oppose it, that we will oppose it," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. "Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] was very clear with President Abbas when she was in Ramallah last week that our position on this has not changed, and we are continuing to make that clear, not only directly to President Abbas and the Palestinians, but also to all of our UN partners as well."

Ms. Nuland went on to say: "We think it’s going to be complicating and potentially a step backwards in terms of the larger goal, which is a negotiated solution."

If Abbas does back down, it will once again appear as if he's acting entirely at the behest of the US. Not something to improve his standing in the current climate.

After UN vote, then what?

Could the UN deliver the big win Abbas desperately needs? Perhaps. France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told his country's parliament today Paris will vote "yes" for Palestine at the UN, and recognition of a state along 1967 borders at the UN would be a symbolic victory. Raucous, happy crowds in Ramallah after a successful vote? No doubt. 

But what then? The Obama administration has threatened to cut Abbas off financially in retaliation for pursuing observer status at the UN. Congress is on board too. When Abbas flirted with a UN bid last year, Congress suspended $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel too, has threatened financial sanctions, and some senior officials have gone further. Right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman prepared a document calling for the "dismantling" of the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for a successful UN upgrade.

Cutting off money would be devastating in an economy where most employment is driven by the PA. That could leave Abbas with a symbolic victory, but real financial and political pain and more people viewing the Hamas approach to Israel as the right one.

That outcome would presumably horrify the US and Israel, but sometimes it appears that the efforts of years have guided outcomes in precisely the direction they had hoped to avoid. When Hamas first started to emerge in Israeli-occupied Gaza in the 1980s, Israel viewed the religious movement as a useful foil to Fatah, a group that could divide Palestinian loyalties and weaken their major enemy.

Twenty years later, Hamas is the major enemy. Fatah, and Abbas, are staring at obsolescence.

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