Ben Lynfield: Abbas is between rock and hard place in bid to heal rift
FLAGS of nations that endorse his bid for Palestinian membership in the UN flutter next to Mahmoud Abbas’s HQ, but the moderate Palestinian president is heading into crucial reconciliation talks with the militant Hamas movement from a position of weakness.
Speculation that a breakthrough is imminent between Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement and its rival Hamas was heightened by statements last week from a senior Fatah negotiator, Azzam Ahmad, that a new mutually agreed upon government would be formed to pave the way for presidential and legislative elections in May. But analysts questioned whether Hamas would ultimately be willing to give up its exclusive control of the Gaza Strip or Fatah its grip on the West Bank.
The membership bid, which led to a surge of popularity for Mr Abbas after he addressed the UN General Assembly in September, is now at a dead end, with the Palestinians unable to muster the nine security council votes that would have represented a symbolic victory despite the certainty of an American veto. The Palestinians did gain membership to the UN cultural and scientific body Unesco, but this has little significance for public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, it triggered punitive Israeli measures.
Mr Abbas is also at a dead end in his efforts to reach a negotiated two-state solution with Israel. The right-wing government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to the Palestinian pre-condition that it freeze settlement construction with the biggest Jewish settlement drive in years in East Jerusalem, the area Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state. With the US heading into an election year, Mr Abbas knows he cannot expect pressure from Barack Obama on Mr Netanyahu to soften Israel’s position. Mr Abbas could use a domestic boost, and an agreement with Hamas would be popular among Palestinians.
“Abbas is going to talk to Hamas because he has no alternative,” says Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the Haifa-based International Centre for Consultations. “He is getting nothing from Israel and the international community and failing in the security council.” Mr Abbas is due to meet Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal in Cairo on Friday under the auspices of the Egyptian government in a bid to end the four-year rift that began with Hamas’s armed takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’s Damascus-based leadership is voicing enthusiasm about the meeting, although leaders in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip are believed to be reluctant about any move that could loosen their hold on positions of power. Mr Mashaal and the Damascus leadership have an interest in co-operating with Egyptian efforts to broker an agreement because the uprising in Syria – which intensified this week – is raising questions about how long they can continue to rely on the support and haven provided by president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Moreover, within Hamas, an agreement would enable the Damascus-based leadership to regain ground after four years in which it has been increasingly eclipsed by the Gaza leadership.
Still, some of the Gaza Hamas leaders are believed to be loath to give Mr Abbas a political boost through an agreement, reasoning that his position will continue to erode if left alone.
For Mr Abbas, reaching an agreement would come at a heavy price. The US and Israel, and possibly other members of the international community, would shun any government of which Hamas forms a part. And there would be no prospect of Israel unfreezing the tax revenues, which are vital for the Palestinian Authority.
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