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Abbas taking greater risks as he tries again to unify Palestinians

Four years after he failed to forge a unity government between his Fatah faction and Hamas, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trying again. This time, however, he appears willing to alienate the U.S. and Israel, if necessary.

May 18, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, had been previously criticized for lacking creativity, assertiveness and a backup plan in case U.S.-brokered peace talks faltered. But lately he has impressed some as a leader unafraid to make bold moves.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, had been previously… (Atef Safadi, European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Jerusalem — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is back on the tightrope.

The last time he tried a high-stakes balancing act with rival Hamas, he famously plunged off the wire. After the militant group won parliamentary elections in 2006 and was promptly boycotted by Israel, the U.S. and Europe, an attempt at a unity government unraveled into open warfare between the rival Palestinian factions.

But in the wake of a May 4 reconciliation deal with the Islamist Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel label as a terrorist organization, he's gambling on a better safety net this time. There are indications that Arab nations and some European ones might be willing to make up the difference if the United States yanks funding for his government and Israel cuts off the transfer of tax revenues that account for two-thirds of his budget.

Still, Abbas, who this week began hammering out the details of his new government, will be severely tested in the days and weeks ahead. As he embarks on what he insists will be his final year in power before retirement, the Palestinian leader has surprised many in recent months by taking some stubborn and unpredictable positions.

Previously criticized for lacking creativity, assertiveness and a backup plan in case U.S.-brokered peace talks faltered, Abbas lately has impressed some as a leader unafraid to make bold moves, jump into unchartered territory and even alienate the U.S. and Israel.

The expected September bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations is gaining more momentum than many Palestinians predicted. Abbas defied U.S. pressure to drop his demand for a halt to new Jewish settlements in return for resuming talks and is brushing aside increasingly urgent pleas from Washington to give up the U.N. statehood plan. Now he's putting international funding and his reputation on the line to partner with Hamas.

Aides and analysts say his recent moves suggest a leader who believes he has nothing to lose and is thinking about his legacy.

"Abbas is undergoing some serious changes," said Hisham Ahmed, a political analyst from Moraga, Calif.-based St. Mary's College who is visiting the West Bank. "We could be heading into a very volatile summer."

To make his latest maneuver work, Palestinian officials and analysts say, Abbas will need to find a way to partner with Hamas while simultaneously distancing himself and the new government from the militant group. And he will try to satisfy international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, even though the new government, to avoid antagonizing Hamas, may not do so explicitly.

As it was when Abbas tried to broker a unity government four years ago, a hot-button issue will be the conditions set down in 2006 by the Mideast quartet, consisting of the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia: In exchange for funding and recognition, the new government must formally recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past peace agreements.

Abbas' government in the West Bank accepted the conditions and got its funding restored after the 2007 split. Hamas continues to balk at the conditions, and as a result, the Gaza Strip, which the militant group has ruled since, has endured stiff economic sanctions.

Some in Congress are already moving to try to halt about $500 million in U.S. support for Palestinians unless the new government, including Hamas, accepts the conditions.

European governments, by contrast, appear ready to compromise, hoping the reconciliation will bolster the peace process. When Israel temporarily withheld the transfer of about $89 million in Palestinian tax collections last week, the European Union and France pledged about $80 million to help the Palestinian Authority cope with the shortfall.

"Europe is pushing back this time," said Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington. "They look at the glass as half full, or more like three-fourths or seven-eighths full. They want to continue the funding relationship."

Under pressure from Europe and the U.S., Israel agreed Monday to release the monthly tax receipts, but it is threatening to withhold future payments — worth about $1.2 billion a year — if the new government cannot prove that the funds won't go to Hamas.

If Israel and the U.S. impose sanctions in the coming weeks, Palestinians say they will try to make up the shortfall from European or Arab nations.

"Otherwise, if they cut off funds, we'll close down the authority, if that's what they want," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian lawmaker who helped mediate the reconciliation deal.

Levy called the standoff a "game of political chicken," noting that the U.S. and even Israel might not want to risk the chaos and violence that could follow a collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

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