Is Abbas Still Relevant to the Peace Process?

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ZHANG NING / Xinhua /Landov

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

Nobody doubts that President Barack Obama has a lot on his plate, what with two wars, a credit crisis, a failing health-care system, a collapsing auto industry and much more demanding his attention. When he welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on Thursday, however, Obama will be forced to grapple with one of the more bizarre responsibilities bequeathed him by the Bush Administration: that of micromanaging the Palestinian Authority.

Last week's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored the challenge Obama faces in pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Israeli leader, after all, opposes the principle of sovereign independence for the Palestinians. This week, Obama will encounter a second major obstacle: Abbas may be committed to the two-state solution, but his political authority over his own people is so limited that he is unable to effectively negotiate on their behalf. (See pictures of Israel's Gaza offensive in January.)

Abbas controls only the West Bank. The other Palestinian enclave, Gaza, remains in the hands of the Islamist Hamas movement, which doesn't recognize either Israel or the Palestinian Authority President's writ. Hamas, which says Abbas' term of office expired in January, no longer recognizes his presidency. (Abbas' supporters claim that he can rule legally until next January.) Hamas, moreover, is the ruling party of the democratically elected Palestinian legislature, which is supposed to approve the appointment of a government — but the legislature is unable to convene because of the large number of Hamas legislators in Israeli detention. (See pictures of Jerusalem, a divided city.)

Last week, Abbas named a new government chosen by its Prime Minister, the U.S.-anointed favorite Salam Fayyad. Fayyad is a competent technocrat whom the West is backing so he can build the structures of governance and security for a future Palestinian state. But he has no political base among Palestinians and is not even a member of Abbas' Fatah movement. Fatah, in fact, sees the Prime Minister and his government as having been imposed from outside, and publicly opposed its formation. Abbas' appointment of a government opposed by both Hamas and Fatah demonstrates just how precarious his political position has become, largely a result of his doing Washington's bidding, often against his own instincts. Palestinian polls and Israeli intelligence concur that if a new Palestinian election were held now, Abbas and his movement would likely lose to Hamas. (See pictures of the 2006 Palestinian election won by Hamas.)

With U.S. tutelage arguably having gotten him into such a dismal political situation, Abbas will expect Obama to answer tough questions. Abbas became President with U.S. backing after Yasser Arafat died, and the Bush Administration arranged a few photo opportunities with then Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon in order to create the impression of a peace process. But Washington also insisted that Abbas proceed with the legislative election scheduled for January 2006, despite the Palestinian leader's misgivings.

Abbas' doubts were well founded. He had read the mood of his people more accurately than the Bush Administration had. Frustrated at the failure of more than a decade of negotiation with Israel to end the occupation, voters gave Hamas a landslide victory. The Bush Administration then made things more complicated for him. Having championed the primacy of the government chosen by the elected parliament when Arafat was alive, Washington now demanded that Abbas reclaim for the presidency the control over finances and security forces for which it had so sharply criticized Arafat. And when Abbas agreed to enter a Saudi-brokered unity government with Hamas, the Bush Administration pressured him to walk away.

With Washington the key to delivering Israeli agreement on a two-state solution, Abbas saw little alternative but to do what the Americans asked of him. But the U.S. and Israel declined to give him the concessions necessary to validate his choices in Palestinian eyes, resulting in Abbas' losing even more ground to Hamas over the past two years.

The Obama Administration knows that a plausible peace process depends on Abbas' restoring his political mandate, which will require agreement between Fatah and Hamas on a new government and the holding of new elections by next January. But the current Israeli government is resistant to implementing a two-state solution, and it will refuse to deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Administration officials have made clear that they expect Abbas to immediately enter unconditional talks with Netanyahu, though there isn't all that much to talk about — not only because Netanyahu is significantly more hawkish than his predecessor, but also because the parameters of such a solution are already well established. Such noncommittal talks would do little to advance any peace process, but they would damage whatever credibility Abbas retains in Palestinian eyes.

The Administration would also like Abbas — or Fayyad — to continue building up the Palestinian Authority's administrative and security capacity in the West Bank. But absent progress toward ending the occupation, that too risks further weakening Abbas. Indeed, the frustration of Fatah's membership with its leader, and the continued siege of Hamas-controlled Gaza, raises the prospect that both major Palestinian organizations, Hamas and Fatah, may decide to signal their opposition to Abbas and Fayyad by renewing attacks on Israelis.

Obama could also seek to head off the danger of renewed confrontation by urging Abbas to go ahead with holding the long-delayed internal Fatah congress and preparing for elections next year. But both events run the risk of further weakening the power of Abbas and the government on which the U.S. has placed its hopes, because as much as peace needs a Palestinian national consensus, that consensus is likely to be far less pliant toward the U.S. and Israel than Abbas has been.

During Netanyahu's visit, Obama acquainted himself with the reality that dealing with the Israeli side of the two-state peace equation will not be easy. When he meets with Abbas this week, he'll be reminded that the Palestinian side of the equation will be just as difficult.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem