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Palestinian Authority President Confronts Crises on Many Fronts

Mahmoud Abbas faces a revolt in his party and the tall task of dealing with Hamas. But he may be the only bridge to Israel and the West.

January 30, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — His treasury is broke, his calls for peace talks with Israel rebuffed, and gun-toting activists in his Fatah party are in a rage over its electoral trouncing by Hamas.

For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently completed his first year in office, an already challenging tenure just became significantly more difficult. Some question whether Abbas, who has proved to be a weak, if well-intentioned figure, can last.

In coming weeks, he will have to negotiate with Hamas over the shape of a new government in the face of threats by the United States and Europe to withhold aid if the Islamic party takes part. Israel says it won't negotiate as long as Hamas keeps its guns and refuses to recognize the Jewish state's existence.

Abbas also faces a rebellion within Fatah, which is being marginalized after four decades in which it was the dominant force in Palestinian politics.

"He is not in a good position," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah. "How is he going to deal with ... Hamas being in the majority and forming a government? How is he going to deal with the anger inside Fatah?"

Final vote tallies released Sunday showed that Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, two fewer than indicated by preliminary tallies last week, compared with 45 for Fatah.

Abbas won a separate election for president to succeed the late Yasser Arafat a year ago.

Despite being weakened by his party's showing in last week's vote, the 70-year-old leader has given every indication he wants to remain president, Palestinian officials say. Almost everyone else seems to want him to do so.

Hamas, which never expected to win an outright majority, needs Abbas as a bridge to Fatah and the outside world. The United States and Europe, which classify Hamas as a terrorist group, can deal with Abbas instead.

The Bush administration was quick to express its support for him after Hamas was declared the winner of Wednesday's elections.

Even Israeli leaders are holding out hope that Abbas, a moderate, remains in the leadership spot, despite their disappointment over his failure to rein in militias since being elected. Israeli media quoted Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security agency, as saying during a Cabinet meeting Sunday that Abbas' resignation would be a disaster.

"He's the shield of the new government, the new order," Jarbawi said. "Everybody needs him: the Israelis, the international community, the Americans, the Europeans -- everybody. Even Hamas needs him to be the shield of Hamas in front of the international community."

Abbas is to name a new prime minister based on recommendations from the Hamas leadership.

Its majority means Hamas also has the power to determine who is in the next Cabinet. Hamas leaders would like to include Fatah, but many Fatah leaders prefer to sit out in hopes that Hamas will prove incapable of governing.

Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, has good relations with Hamas and will surely end up in the middle of these negotiations. But Fatah will demand that in exchange for joining the government Hamas drop its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and acknowledge agreements in place between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Without the support of Abu Mazen and Fatah, I can't see how any government could work, even if we only have four votes," Abbas' spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said Sunday. "We want them to change."

The founding charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel, and Hamas leaders insisted after the vote that they would not recognize the Jewish state. But Ziad abu Amr, an independent lawmaker from Gaza City endorsed by Hamas, said he believed that Hamas leaders were prepared to alter their policies. "Hamas is fully aware of what it needs to do to be recognized by the international community," he said.

Abu Amr said Abbas still held significant clout, despite the big electoral loss.

One possibility is that the new Cabinet will be made up of technocrats who do not belong to Hamas or Fatah, but pass muster with the Hamas-led parliament. Analysts said such a move might enable the United States, Europe and perhaps Israel to maintain ties with the Palestinian Authority without violating pledges to reject dealings with Hamas.

Abbas also faces a broken Fatah. Since the loss, young militants have taken to the streets in Gaza to demand removal of the party's leadership. Some senior members, who had urged Abbas to postpone the election for fear of losing it, grouse that the party failed even after giving a more prominent role to younger activists who had complained of being shunted aside.

On Sunday, the party's Central Committee purged dozens of members who broke off to run as independents, diluting the pro-Fatah votes in key districts.

But the election loss also was in part a referendum on Abbas.

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