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Abbas in a Bind Amid New Strife

Palestinian prime minister's credibility is eroding as camps remain polarized. Some say he lacks the temperament to lead.

May 21, 2003|Megan K. Stack and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — If there is a single most despondent figure in the stalled Middle East peace process, it is probably Mahmoud Abbas. A few weeks after he swept into office as the favored candidate of the United States and Israel, the new Palestinian prime minister is stranded on a shrinking scrap of political turf.

These days, it's hard to find anybody who believes Abbas will last in his post. Some observers predict he'll be assassinated; others think he'll resign. Friends say he has slipped into depression.

A wave of suicide bombings has battered his credibility. Palestinians dismiss his government as the product of foreign meddling. He's been shoved into a high-stakes power struggle with his boss and sometime nemesis, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Any number of miscalculations could put his mission -- or his life -- at risk.

President Bush telephoned Abbas for the first time Tuesday and urged him to round up the Palestinian militant factions whose bloody exploits threaten to plunge this region deeper into violence.

Bush, who then called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, views Abbas as "a reformer who is working for peace who genuinely wants to do everything in his power to achieve peace and to fight terror," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.

But if Abbas does what Bush asked -- arrest and disarm militants with no concessions from Israel -- "he is at serious risk," Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein said. "He cannot be perceived as a collaborator."

This is the Abbas dilemma: If he becomes too independent or too friendly with the United States and Israel, he will turn Arafat and many Palestinians against him. But if he stays under Arafat's wing or draws too close to the resistance factions, he'll be shunned by Israel and the U.S., whose intense pressure put him in power.Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has said he won't try to quell the militants until the Jewish state accepts a U.S.-backed peace plan. Palestinians have already approved the "road map," a three-step guide to protecting Israel from attack and establishing a Palestinian state.

But Israeli officials have deemed the plan too soft on the Palestinians and asked for revisions. Sharon was expected to visit Washington this week to discuss the plan with Bush but canceled after a suicide bombing. Bush has been considering a visit to the Middle East.

Abbas met with Sharon Saturday night but couldn't convince him to endorse the road map without conditions.

"How could Abu Mazen accept a cease-fire when Sharon didn't accept the road map?" asked Manuel Hassassian, a Palestinian analyst and negotiator.

Behind all the layers of diplomacy and despair, an aging Palestinian refugee with clunky spectacles and a history of prostate cancer is struggling to maintain his footing.

"Today he is in a very pessimistic mood," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib, who spoke with Abbas in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. "Everyone was expecting that he would be given a chance.... He was convinced that the Israelis would give him a chance to get the road map moving."

Even if Abbas wanted to take on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical factions deeply rooted in the gritty streets of Gaza and the West Bank, it's unclear that he could. The ranks of the Palestinian security services have been eroded by 31 months of violence, and organizations like Hamas remain strong.

Still, Palestinian observers are terrified that he'll try -- and that civil war will erupt.

"The worst thing would be to enter into a military confrontation with Hamas, because the result would be devastating," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian lawmaker and confidant of Abbas. "That is what the Israelis want him to do, because they know it would be suicidal."

Hamas' leadership brushed aside Bush's telephone plea to Abbas. On Tuesday night, a Gaza spokesman for the group said the U.S. request was predictable and irrelevant.

"Abu Mazen knows very well that Sharon doesn't have anything to give to the Palestinian people," said Abdulaziz Rantisi. "The American plan is to provide full security to the Zionist enemy and in return give empty promises to the Palestinians about statehood."

After months of boycotting Arafat for failing to control radicals, the U.S. and Israel decided the best way to sideline his Palestinian Authority was to arrange for a new government.

So they pressured the Palestinians to create the job of prime minister.

But the list of candidates was short -- and in the end, peace mediators decided, only the softened radical Mahmoud Abbas had the proper combination of newly adopted moderate politics and revolutionary origins.

Abbas' talk of nonviolence satisfied the Israelis; his history as a founder of the Fatah resistance movement gave him credibility among Palestinians. "He knew how difficult it was going to be, but I don't know if he had much choice," Ashrawi said. "He was under tremendous pressure from Palestinians, Israel and the United States."

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