Abbas Makes Risky Move

By Ori Nir

Published June 02, 2006, issue of June 02, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Despite U.S. expressions of hope that a new gambit by the chairman of the Palestinian Authority could pave the way to negotiations with Israel, fears persist in Washington and Jerusalem that the maneuver could backfire and end up strengthening the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas.

Bush administration officials believe that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, of the secular nationalist Fatah movement, took a key first step toward becoming an effective interlocutor for negotiations with Israel by pressuring Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel, to endorse a joint platform that implicitly recognizes Israel in the 1967 borders.

Abbas shocked many observers last week when he vowed to hold a national referendum in 40 days on the document — which would entail implicit recognition of Israel in the pre-1967 borders — if Hamas did not endorse it by June 5.

Bush administration officials are telling diplomats and Middle East experts in Washington that the ultimatum could cause a further splintering of Hamas and eventually lead the group to adopt a more pragmatic approach to Israel and running the P.A. But at the same time, according to those in regular contact with administration officials, the White House is worried that if Abbas blinks in the standoff with Hamas, his credibility will be severely damaged on the international stage and in the territories.

“People will say: ‘Look, he cannot even pull that off,’” said Nathan Brown, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, worry that if Hamas accepts the proposal, it will increase pressure on the Israelis to negotiate directly with the Palestinians before key demands are met, including the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure in the territories.

“Israel may find itself under pressure by regional or European governments, who would say, ‘There is progress — let’s go with it,’” said Michael Herzog, former military secretary to Israel’s minister of defense. Herzog is currently a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Israel’s government would no longer be able to argue that it has no one to talk to on the Palestinian side,” said Ami Ayalon, a Labor lawmaker and former head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, in a telephone interview. Ayalon, who met with Abbas last week in Ramallah to discuss the

Palestinian leader’s efforts to curb Hamas’s militant positions, added, “If this document is accepted by the whole Palestinian society, in a referendum, you can no longer convince the world that you must pursue a unilateral approach for the lack of a Palestinian partner.”

But for now, Ayalon seemed to suggest, the risks are greatest for Abbas himself.

The Palestinian president is leading “what he views as a dramatic drive, a high-stakes one, from which there is no way back,” Ayalon said. If Abbas fails to obtain Hamas’s endorsement of the document or, alternatively, to bring it to a referendum, “that would be the end of his leadership, and he knows it.”

The principles now being embraced by Abbas are contained in the “National Agreement Document,” a platform hammered out in an Israeli prison by members of all the major Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad (see accompanying story). The initiator of the document was Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic Fatah leader who led the movement’s parliamentary list in January’s general elections, and is serving five consecutive life prison sentences for masterminding deadly attacks on Israeli civilians.

As of Wednesday, most Hamas officials were neither endorsing nor categorically rejecting the document, which states in detail what should be the ground rules for future relations between various Palestinian factions in order to decrease friction and prevent civil war. It also attempts to create — in vague generalities — a common political agenda, including a reference to the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Although the document does not mention Israel and does not say that the Palestinian struggle would stop at these borders, the reference to the 1967 lines is widely interpreted as an implicit recognition of Israel and of a two-state solution as the path toward peace.

Israeli officials are not commenting on the current standoff in the Palestinian territories. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni instructed fellow ministers and their staff not to discuss the Palestinian document or the referendum idea.

“This is an internal Palestinian issue which Israel obviously follows closely,” said David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “It is important to keep in mind, however, the three conditions posed by the international community to engaging with Hamas.” Israel and its Western allies have been demanding that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce terrorism and accept all past agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the “prisoners’ document” clearly falls short of these conditions. “It will be difficult [for the Palestinians] to convince anyone in the West that this can be a basis for anything,” the official said.

Even if the United States and its allies end up rejecting the document as a basis for negotiations, Abbas had good reason to embrace it, observers say. One Palestinian public-opinion poll found that at least 80% of the respondents said they supported the document. Many may support it because the platform offers a way to reduce internal clashes and boost public security, but, surveys suggest, most Palestinians do support talks with Israeli and recognize Israel in the 1967 borders.

Abbas is not only playing the referendum card with an eye on Hamas, said Gidi Greenstein, founder and president of the Re’ut Institute, a private Israeli think tank. The Palestinian leader, Greenstein said, is also responding to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s expressed willingness to negotiate with Abbas only if he delivers on the requirements of the internationally sponsored road map peace plan. The plan, shepherded by the international diplomatic quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, calls for the “Palestinian Authority security apparatus” to begin “sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”

Both Olmert and Abbas, according to Greenstein, know that the Palestinian president cannot deliver on this demand — which, Greenstein said, is why Olmert, who was elected on a platform of unilateralism, insists that implementation of the road map be a condition for negotiating with Abbas. The Palestinian leader is seeking a way out of the road map, and believes that neutralizing Hamas might create enough international pressure on Olmert to negotiate unconditionally with the Palestinian leadership.

While some see Abbas’s move as a “major junction in Palestinian politics,” in the words of former Shin Bet chief Ayalon, others say it has very little chance of producing any significant movement. Carnegie’s Brown said he sees a very high likelihood that instead of securing intra-Palestinian calm, the showdown could “spin out of control” and exacerbate the already chaotic violence on the streets of Gaza.

Aaron Miller, a former Middle East negotiator at the State Department and now a scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, predicted that Abbas’s attempt to produce a diplomatic breakthrough is likely to be either eroded in endless internal Palestinian deliberations or overtaken by the abundance of “distractions and background noise all around.”

According to Miller, because Israel’s prime minister has no interest in a negotiated solution with the Palestinians, and because it is impossible to achieve a “unified Palestinian position that would represent a credible approach, even as an opening position in negotiations,” Israeli and American officials can sit back, “bemused and fascinated by the ongoing tic-toc between Hamas and Fatah” without having to make any difficult decisions.

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