Abbas' Balancing Act

The PA president alone is holding up the political process on the Palestinian side, and needs to overcome the doubts of his opponents and supporters alike.

The new moon on September 8, a week after the start of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, will tell the world's 1.5 billion Muslims that the month of Ramadan has ended and the feast of Eid el Fitr has begun. The Jewish holiday season, which begins the same evening and continues through the end of September, comes on top of the Muslim events and offers one more reason to believe the negotiations will get off to a slow start.

Mahmoud Abbas AP

True, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas obtained most of the preconditions he wanted for the talks to begin. The declaration by the Quartet that it is committed to previous decisions - including the road map, the Trieste declaration of June 2009 and the Moscow declaration from this past March, all of which oblige Israel to cease construction in the settlements, including "natural growth" expansion - should have answered his demand that the construction freeze be continued past September 26. Similarly, the letter Abbas received from U.S. President Barack Obama, which was leaked this week and states that the United States will help the Palestinians realize a sovereign state existing in peace alongside Israel, is the same letter Abbas presented to the Arab League's monitoring committee in July. In the wake of that letter, the committee decided to "allow" Abbas to launch direct talks.

Abbas' apprehension stems from the fact that many conditions remain undefined, such as the length of the negotiations. Moreover, will negotiations on borders precede those about security arrangements, which in principle are supposed to last a year. Will Israel's demand to maintain an armed presence along the Jordanian border receive American support? What will the American stance be on Jerusalem, refugees and the settlements?

To remove all doubt, Abbas warned this week that if the construction freeze does not continue, there will be no negotiations. That statement was aimed not only at Israel and the United States but also at his domestic opposition: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, as well as his own confidants and supporters who want to postpone direct talks until such matters are determined.

Munib al-Masri, the businessman who heads the internal Palestinian effort to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, and who is a close associate of Abbas, publicly called on his friend this week not to enter into talks. According to al-Masri, they will be "a waste of time during which the Israelis will continue to build settlements ... We have made enough concessions and under no circumstances must we agree to accept less than what we agreed on in the Oslo Accords."

The other Palestinian groups and the "regular" opposition, including Hamas, rejected direct talks at the time when the Arab League agreed to the move. They are still sounding the old tune about Palestinian unity being needed in order to continue the resistance against Israel. In addition to the ideological argument, Hamas maintains that the Palestinian Authority and its leader lack the authority to conduct negotiations in the name of the Palestinian people. Abbas' term is up, new elections are not on the horizon and any decision by Fatah will not bind Gaza, which Hamas rules.

Hamas faces a "serious dilemma," the Lebanese journalist Hussam Itani wrote this week: "It cannot wield weapons against Israel, and it is not proposing a better model of life for Gaza's residents." The results of the Turkish flotilla - which Hamas used to take credit for breaking the siege of Gaza - was a double-edged sword, he said. Additional flotillas will have trouble reaching Gaza, Israel opened the crossings (albeit not fully ), and Hamas cannot afford to be viewed as a terrorist organization after having scored a public-opinion victory. More importantly, Hamas' rivals are saying the organization is the standard-bearer solely for matters concerning Gaza and cannot even reach a deal with Israel over a prisoner swap. Hamas cannot disrupt the political process, and it cannot decide whether it is a religious or a national organization.

But Abbas also faces a complex problem of legitimacy. The relatively improved life he is offering the residents of the West Bank - economic growth of more than 8 percent last year, and another 6.5 percent expected this year - is very much dependent on American and European aid. The total this year is supposed to be $1.4 billion, including $500 million earmarked for the Palestinian police force and development.

Abbas' Arab supporters have been lethargic in their financial support. Saudi Arabia gave only $50 million this year, down from $241 million in 2009, and the United Arab Emirates, which last year donated $174 million, has given nothing this year so far. For Abbas to say no to American pressure means saying no to development and salaries. On the other hand, forgoing national principles for American funds is not a great recipe for consolidating political power.

Nor does Abbas have an overt public base. The Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee has been silent of late, and the Palestinian National Council is effectively nonexistent. His regime is based on his personality, and disputes rage within the government. On the Palestinian side, the political process rests on one individual, not a bureaucracy or a regime that could ensure its continuation in the event of Abbas' disappearance.

This does not mean Abbas cannot make decisions and implement them, or that his decisions will be annulled as soon as he departs the scene. But in order to ensure his agreements last, he needs to strike a balance between building Palestinian trust in his moves and his international legitimacy; between the fundamental principles at the base of an agreement and the need for aid to ensure quality of life in the West Bank; between the aspiration to represent all Palestinians, including Gazans, and the deep rift with Hamas.

Abbas, finding himself enveloped by pressures, decided to restore to the Arab League what it lost decades ago, letting it hand out responsibility and decide the bounds of negotiations with Israel. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan support the direct talks and will back any agreement Israel and the Palestinians reach. They are also likely to provide solid support for whatever Palestinian regime succeeds Abbas, even if it turns out to be Hamas, provided the latter accepts what the Arab states accepted in the 2002 Beirut Summit. Israel will have to obtain not only the support of the United States but also preserve the Arab guarantees.