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The Remote Control President: Palestinians Rail Against Bungling Abbas

By in Jerusalem

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is damaging his standing with his own supporters as he careens back and forth between Israel and the United States. As his support fades, Palestinians are beginning to discuss a possible successor. Someone who might pave the way for reconciliation between Abbas' Fatah party and the radical Hamas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seeing his support wane. Zoom
AFP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seeing his support wane.

Laila al-Bukhari has a limp handshake. It is hard to believe that her hands once attached explosive belts to Palestinian suicide bombers.

Al-Bukhari, now 32, was released just days ago after spending seven years and four months in an Israeli prison. Her eyes constantly dart around the room as she talks, as if to make sure that she is no longer incarcerated in a small cell at Damun Prison in the Israeli port city of Haifa. Instead she is sitting in the large living room of her parents' house, a former British governor's residence in the Palestinian city of Nablus in the mountains of the West Bank.

The young woman is wearing trousers and a T-shirt, her reddish-brown hair is tied back into a ponytail, and her bare feet are inserted into white platform sandals. Bukhari, a member of the secular Fatah movement, is not a devout Muslim.

On the wall are photos of Fatah founder Yasser Arafat and of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Autonomous Authority. Yellow Fatah flags fly outside, and a poster depicts Abbas proclaiming a national day of remembrance for the Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Photo Gallery

9  Photos
Photo Gallery: Trouble Brewing for Abbas

However, al-Bukhari doesn't owe her release to her own party, but to the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas managed to secure the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners from Israel in return for providing a video of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Al-Bukhari doesn't like to admit it, she says, but "yes, Hamas acted in the interest of the entire nation when it kidnapped Shalit."

In the city of Hebron 65 kilometers (41 miles) to the south, Heba al-Nacheh enters her family's sparsely furnished living room. She is wearing a denim outfit with a floor-length skirt, and her face is framed by a white headscarf. It is hard to tell whether her handshake would be as light as al-Bukhari's because, for religious reasons, al-Nacheh doesn't shake hands with strange men.

The 19-year-old is a member of Hamas. In 2006, she was arrested and charged with having planned a knife attack against an Israeli soldier. To this day, she believes that she was falsely accused. According to al-Nacheh, she inadvertently walked into the wrong line at an army checkpoint, and she was only arrested because she was the only woman not wearing a headscarf.

'Islam is the Solution'

Peace with Israel? Never, says al-Nacheh. "Palestine reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. We will never accept a two-state solution. This is our country." A saying hanging on the wall reads: "Islam is the solution."

But there is no photo of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas on al-Nacheh's wall. What does she think about him? She shakes her head to indicate that she prefers to say nothing. Her grandfather, Abu Haitham, responds instead: "It is a disgrace when people betray their own people by carrying out the orders of foreigners."

President Abbas does seem to be operating on remote control at the moment. After refusing for weeks to meet with hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he finally agreed, at Washington's request, to attend an embarrassing show summit, so that Obama could save face. Then it was revealed that Abbas' Palestinian Authority, again responding to American pressure, had voted against the submission of the so-called Goldstone report on the Gaza war to the United Nations Security Council. The report accuses Israel of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead early this year in the Gaza Strip.

Demands for Abbas to resign have begun coming from all political camps. Hamas threatened to withdraw from reconciliation talks with Fatah in Cairo. "We cannot sit down with this criminal," Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Sarah said sharply, demanding that Egypt reschedule the talks for December. Calls for Abbas's withdrawal were even heard from within his own ranks. "The damage to President Abbas is very considerable," Nabil Shaath, a former prime minister and current member of the Fatah central committee, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Shaath, a Fatah official in charge of the talks with Hamas, says it was a "serious mistake" to postpone the debate over the Gaza report.

Abbas was forced to explain his policy on the Goldstone report. During a speech in the West Bank city of Jenin, he announced the creation of a special committee charged with investigating why the vote on the UN report was deferred.

An Eleventh-hour Pushover

With a mixture of anger and bewilderment, Palestinians are witnessing an astonishing self-demolition. In the fifth year of his presidency, Abbas is stumbling and bungling his way through the thicket of diplomacy, as if he had only arrived on the international stage a few weeks ago.

Ironically, the inauguration of US President Barack Obama had seemed to bode well for the Palestinians. Obama had promised nothing less than a new beginning for relations between Washington and the Arab world in his Cairo speech in June, and he had also come down more heavily on the Israelis, demanding that they impose a complete freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements throughout Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

That was when Abbas's diplomatic careening began. He promptly made the settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations, even though he had talked to Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, without a moratorium. When Netanyahu paid lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, Abbas's refusal to negotiate seemed defiant. The Americans dropped their demand for a complete settlement freeze, and Abbas was suddenly isolated. He gave in at the last minute and agreed to meet with Netanyahu.

Alone on the Wrong Course

It seemed as if the highest-ranking Palestinian had lost his inner compass. Instead of concentrating on the goal of establishing a nation for his people in the most efficient way possible, Abbas is orienting himself toward the Americans' error-prone navigation system. Meanwhile, Washington has already departed from its original route, now that Israel has blocked its path.

"Abbas' integrity is severely shaken," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi. A lawyer by training, Hadi founded the organization Passia 20 years ago to promote dialogue among different Palestinian groups. The situation has rarely been this dismal, says Hadi. "We are witnessing a serious crisis of leadership."

Hadi, who is no friend of Hamas, favors negotiations and opposes suicide bombers, but he does show respect for the Islamists. Even though it is just as internally divided as Fatah, says Hadi, Hamas speaks to the outside world with one voice. Noting that Hamas is simply better organized, Hadi describes the last round of reconciliation talks in Cairo a few months ago, when the Islamists arrived with laptops and mobile printers. "They were extremely well-prepared."

The excesses on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have also benefited Hamas. Israel had allowed a few fanatical settlers to set foot on the Temple Mount, which Muslims revere and refer to as Haram el-Sharif. In several places in and around Jerusalem's old city, devout Muslims engaged in street battles with Israeli police. The head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, called for the "liberation" of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the Jews. Hamas is attempting, as it did during the first intifada in the late 1980s, to place itself at the head of the movement. Some are already calling it a third intifada.

'Hamas Is Suffering'

For this reason, political expert Abdul Hadi believes that pressure on the Palestinian street is now so great that Fatah and Hamas will have to come to terms. "We are now experiencing a national awakening," he says. "Israel's policy of oppression establishes good conditions for national Palestinian reconciliation," Hadi explains. Besides, he says, Hamas also has an interest in a unity government to overcome its international isolation. "Hamas is suffering because of the situation in Gaza," says Fatah negotiator Nabil Shaath. "Hamas needs a solution."

Two years ago, Palestinians in Israeli prisons launched a reconciliation initiative. Now the female prisoners who were released two weeks ago are also advocating reconciliation. "This discord must come to an end," says Fatah supporter Laila al-Bukhari. Hamas supporter Heba al-Nacheh says that before they were released the prisoners' spokeswoman had urged them to "call for the unity of our people out there."

Al-Nacheh adds that also some Hamas leaders pursue "dirty politics." The speeches by Abbas and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal this week confirm such a view. Instead of promoting reconciliation, the two leaders attacked each other. "We will do everything in our power to bring this coup in Gaza to an end" Abbas threatened. "Fatah deserves a better leadership," Meshaal said.

That is why many of the ex-prisoners are skeptical that reconciliation is possible with the current leadership. There are also politicians in Hamas who benefit from the occupation, says al-Nacheh. Ironically enough, she favors a Fatah man to replace Abbas as president: Marwan Bargouti, leader of the second intifada, who is currently serving multiple life sentences in Israel. "He is the best man for the job," says Nacheh, "certainly better than the one we have now."

New elections are slated for early 2010. Following the internal quarrels of recent weeks, even Abbas's supporters question his candidacy. "Marwan Bargouti is best qualified to reconcile the camps," says al-Bukhari. But like her own release, Bargouti's release depends on Hamas' negotiating skills. Bargouti is at the very top of the list of prisoners the Islamists want to exchange for Israeli soldier Shalit.

But perhaps this is the only combination that can overcome the Palestinian schism: a Fatah man as president, his release secured by Hamas.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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