Analysis: Rock from the hard place falls on Abbas

PALESTINIAN president Mahmoud Abbas and his two decade-old project of establishing an independent Palestinian state face a bleak prognosis.

In the months ahead, Mr Abbas will be hard pressed to survive the combination of nationalism from Israel and the ambitions of his Islamist rival, Hamas.

Just six weeks ago, Mr Abbas seemed to be at a high point, gaining the support of 138 countries at the United Nations General Assembly for the Palestinian upgrade to statehood status. However, that achievement was quickly hollowed out as the moderate leader ran up against the realities of Hamas and Israel, each bent on undermining both him and a two-state solution.

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Mr Abbas, head of the Fatah movement, met in Cairo on Thursday with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to discuss prospects for healing a seven year old split. Egyptian officials said the two men agreed to work towards implementation of a 2011 reconciliation deal, but there was renewed bickering yesterday over the timing of proposed new elections.

Buoyed by the perception in Palestinian public opinion that it won the Gaza war with Israel in November, Hamas calculates that time is on its side and that it should have the upper hand in any deal with Mr Abbas. Mr Meshaal has his sights on a takeover of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, currently run by Fatah.

There are signs that Hamas’s espousal of armed struggle against Israel, as opposed to Mr Abbas’ advocacy of negotiation, is gaining ground in the West Bank. A poll last month by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found that the percentage of Palestinians who support military operations against Israel was 50.9 per cent, up from 29.3 per cent in January 2011..

The economy, meanwhile, is starting to crumble partly because Israel, retaliating for the UN move, halted the transfers of taxes it collects on behalf of Mr Abbas’s government. Arab League countries had promised to provide a safety net, but this has not materialised.

Nor can Mr Abbas look to the upcoming Israeli elections for salvation. Polls show prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has overseen a wave of approvals for new settlement projects rather than accept the Palestinian leader’s demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, easily gaining re-election.

Analysts say it would be politically devastating for Mr Abbas to go back to the table without such a freeze.

It is not only Palestinians worried about the period ahead. General Gadi Zohar, former chief Israeli military administrator for the West Bank and Gaza, believes Israel’s withholding of tax is a grave error.

“This is endangering the continuation of the Palestinian Authority, whose existence is ultimately an Israeli interest. Weakening the authority strengthens Hamas.”