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Editorial

Mahmoud Abbas, the Mideast's big loser

A reported deal for an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap has benefits for all involved, except the weakened Palestinian Authority leader.

November 25, 2009

There are reports of a deal to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit. This is welcome news because the Islamic militant group Hamas has held the 23-year-old soldier as a human pawn, virtually incommunicado, since his capture on the Gaza Strip border in June 2006.

Shalit's release would be a political boon for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of a country with obligatory military service and that identifies with the soldier's plight and his family's pain. Similarly, among Palestinians, Hamas would benefit from being seen as a liberator of prisoners from Israeli jails -- especially if the swap is made by the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha beginning Friday.

Unless there is also something in the agreement for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, the moderate West Bank administrator will once again seem the loser.

Abbas, 74, has been growing politically weaker in recent months, undercut by Israel and the Obama administration, as well as by Hamas. Efforts to reconcile his Fatah faction with Hamas have stalled, and elections scheduled for January had to be postponed because Hamas refuses to allow them to take place in Gaza, the territory under its control. Peace negotiations that broke down during last winter's Gaza war have not resumed, largely because the U.S. failed to persuade Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction on lands captured in the 1967 war. Instead, Israel approved 900 new units in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration also undermined Abbas' credibility with Palestinians by pressing him to withdraw support for a United Nations report accusing Israel of violating international law during the Gaza war.

The Palestinian Authority owes its existence to the 1993 Oslo peace process, and Palestinian support for the authority rises and falls with its perceived ability to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state. When negotiations seem hopeless, Palestinians view the authority as a partner to the Israeli occupation rather than an answer to it. Frustrated, Abbas has threatened to resign and floated the idea of seeking U.N. Security Council support for a declaration of a Palestinian state without Israel's consent. That no one seems to be making a play for the job if Abbas leaves is one sign of just how weakened the presidency is. It's hard to see how Israel would benefit from losing its most reliable Palestinian partner, or how prospects for peace would be improved without Abbas. Hamas, perhaps emboldened by a prisoner release, among other things, most likely would fill the political void.

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