How Abbas Is Losing His Base

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Awad Awad / AFP / Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas consults his Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr, left, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, right, at the Arab Summit in Riyadh, March 28, 2007.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to the Arab Summit in Riyadh today leaving behind angry Palestinian comrades in his wake. Abbas wimped out on them, they say. Before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived last Saturday in the Middle East, Abbas was coached by Fatah's governing Central Committee on how to talk tough with the Americans — not a specialty for Abbas, who is convivial but evasive.

One Central Committee member told TIME that Abbas was prepped to remind Rice that most Palestinians opposed his meeting the U.S. delegation and to say: "You've come to me with a list of Israeli demands. Where is your list of our demands for the Israelis?" Abbas supposedly agreed. It was only after TIME published these remarks as we admit here, and the State Department denied that Abbas had confronted Rice, that the influential Fatah chiefs learned their boss had not followed through. "Frankly, I'm not surprised," one angry committee member remarked afterwards, "Abbas doesn't respect us. He's too busy bowing to American demands. He's become Condi's office boy."

But Abbas may not be telling Rice everything that may inform U.S. policy considerations either. Many within the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic militants with whom Abbas now shares a "unity" government, refuse to recognize Israel or renounce armed resistance. Advisers to Abbas say he was tipped off by intelligence reports recently that Hamas may quit the unity government and resume attacks against Israel. These sources say Abbas was supposed to pass this information on to Rice, but State Dept. officials deny that the secretary was informed of the Palestinian government's possible break-up and of the Hamas threat to resume attacks.

Indeed Hamas militants are not happy with the new unity government since it will abide by past accords signed by the Palestinians with the Israelis. Nor is Hamas putting down its arms. Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal warned from Algeria on Tuesday that Hamas has not halted its armed struggle against Israel. He added that Hamas was bracing for another intifadah or uprising. These are not necessarily empty threats: Israeli intelligence officials say that in recent months Hamas and other militant groups smuggled dozens of tons of explosives and weapons through tunnels into Gaza in preparation for a future battle with the Israelis.

Meanwhile, Fatah insiders say that Abbas's pro-U.S. stance has led to his estrangement from his own Fatah party, and to the defection of many field commanders to more radical groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And these commanders have taken their fighters with them. "It's not a secret that anti-U.S. feeling within Fatah is increasing, and Abbas is ignoring this," said a committee member.

At the Arab summit in Riyadh, Abbas is backing a revived Saudi initiative that offers Israel peace with all Arab nations if it returns to its pre-1967 war borders and allows thousands of Palestinian refugees to return home. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he is open to some aspects of the plan, but not the "right of return" for Palestinians since they would swamp the Jewish state. The Saudis urged Israel to accept, or else. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said, "If Israel refuses, that means it doesn't want peace. Then [the conflict] goes back into the hands of the lords of war."

With Reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah