Abbas's Mission Impossible

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas found out the hard way that applause and accolades for being "a man of peace" at the United Nations don't automatically win him friends back home. Just hours after Abbas raised hopes for restarting the Middle East peace process by vowing on Thursday at the U.N. General Assembly that a new Palestinian government would recognize Israel, his future coalition partners, the Islamist militants of Hamas, killed the deal.

A Hamas senior advisor, Ahmed Yousef, bluntly said: "There won't be a national unity government [with Abbas] if Hamas is asked to recognize Israel." Hamas now leads the Palestinian government; it won the majority of votes in last January's elections, and the beleaguered president cannot get a new cabinet approved by the legislature without the support of the militants.

At the U.N., Abbas perhaps should have been more cautious. But his words were directed toward the White House, say Palestinian advisers close to him. Prior to his speech, Abbas was warned by the Bush Administration — his only protector these days — that he would risk trouble with the U.S. if he drew too close to a Hamas that refuses to recognize Israel. So, to please the White House, Abbas made a promise at the U.N. he could not keep.

And Palestinian public opinion may be behind Hamas on this issue: one of the most respected Palestinian polling organizations released findings last week showing that although 54% of Palestinians are dissatisfied with Hamas's performance in government and its share of the popular vote remains steady at 38%, a majority of 67% believe that Hamas should refuse Western demands that it recognize Israel.

Faced with the impossible gymnastics of trying to satisfy both Hamas and the Bush Administration, Abbas has few options. If he invokes his presidential powers to dissolve the current Hamas government, it could lead to anarchy and perhaps civil war among dozens of armed militias, according to worried Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank. Meanwhile, an economic blockade on the Palestinian territories, imposed by the international community after Hamas took office in March, has squeezed off all but a trickle of aid to millions of desperate Palestinians. Only by bringing Hamas on board in a government that recognizes the State of Israel can Abbas persuade the Bush Administration and other international donors to resume the flow of funds and supplies to keep the Palestinian administration from collapsing.

Hamas militants are willing to bend, slightly. Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh said that while Hamas would never openly recognize Israel (the militants' credo, in fact, vows to destroy the Jewish state), Hamas would be willing to sign a truce with Israel lasting up to 10 years and honor past peace accords that Palestinians signed with Israel. While prospects for changing Hamas's position as a movement are slim, Abbas is hoping to persuade it to make a de facto gesture of recognition by joining a government that accepts previous Palestinian agreements with the Jewish state. The U.S. and Europe have made the renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel preconditions for lifting their punishing sanctions on the Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, the situation in those territories continues to deteriorate for people like Abed, a Gaza housewife who says her husband has been without his government salary for five months. "At first we borrowed money from our relatives for food," she says. "But now they have no money. So I sold my wedding jewelry and the TV. Now, we're selling the furniture. Next, our clothes." For Abed and a million other Palestinians, the question of whether or not they should co-exist with Israel has been reduced to something far more elemental: finding a shekel or two so they can feed their family a plate of beans. —With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem