Rubin: Mahmoud Abbas, the forgotten man

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Nov. 16, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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Looking back, with a cease-fire in place in Gaza, it's easy to understand why Israel retaliated against Hamas rocket attacks. It's harder to fathom why the Israeli government is boosting the stature of the Hamas militants who rule the Gaza Strip.

Presumably this was not Jerusalem's intention. The Israeli government wanted to send Hamas a message that the increasing number of attacks will no longer be tolerated. But, paradoxically, Israel's tactics enhanced the stature of the very militants it wants to curb.

Arab and other Muslim foreign ministers rushed to Gaza and Cairo last week to confer with Hamas leaders in the hope of arranging a cease-fire and avoiding a wider conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cut short a major Asian trip to visit Jerusalem and Cairo and broker the deal.


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This global spotlight on Hamas comes as it has received new support in the wake of the Arab Spring from Egypt and Turkey, whose leaders share Muslim Brotherhood roots with the Hamas organization. The pro-Brotherhood emir of the oil-rich gulf state of Qatar recently became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip.

Meantime, more moderate Palestinian leaders on the West Bank who back talks over force look increasingly outdated. Clinton made a pro forma visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, but the Gaza conflict has left him sidelined.

Abbas is recognized internationally as the main elected Palestinian leader. Unlike Hamas, he and his Fatah party recognize Israel and support talks on a two-state solution; they also oppose the Hamas militants' hold on Gaza.

But Hamas has galvanized the region's attention - and that of Israeli leaders - by "resisting" Israel with its rockets. At the same time, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regards Abbas with disdain.

So why is the star of the moderate Abbas falling while Hamas militants bask in the global limelight? One major reason is the end of the peace process, which burnishes Hamas' standing and undermines Abbas. Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled for nearly four years, in large part over the issue of continued Israeli settlement on the West Bank. Israel blames Abbas for the talks' failure. Yet Netanyahu never showed real interest in facilitating the discussion.

With the Arab world convulsed by revolutions, there's no chance that Israel will consider the establishment of a real Palestinian state in the near term. However, continued Jewish settlement of the West Bank rules out the possibility of a viable Palestinian state in the long term, even if the Arab world settles down.

Given that negotiations have reached a dead end, Abbas plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade Palestinian status to nonmember state next week; he also seeks further U.N. endorsement of a two-state solution. Abbas' move has infuriated the Israeli government, which, along with the Obama administration, strongly opposes it.

In retaliation, Israel is threatening to block the transfer of desperately needed funds to the Palestinian Authority, which is nearly bankrupt. This could drive the authority, which relies on its ability to negotiate with Jerusalem and pay salaries, into collapse. Or Hamas and the Palestinian Authority may unify, with Hamas in the lead role.

Either way, Hamas would emerge as the most powerful Palestinian leadership body. This would have a severely negative impact on security in the West Bank.

At present, the Palestinian Authority's police provide Israel with crucial security assistance and help curb any Hamas surge on the West Bank. If peace talks officially die, the Palestinian police will no longer be able to cooperate with Israel, lest they be branded as collaborators. Hamas would be likely to reemerge in force in West Bank villages and cities, which may force Israel to fully reoccupy the territory to exert control over security.

And, having thus boosted Hamas, the Israeli government may find the only way it can prevent rocket fire from restarting is to reoccupy Gaza as well.

Needless to say, Israel isn't anxious to resume full control over Gaza or the West Bank. That's why it's hard to understand why Jerusalem is so willing to undercut Abbas.

This is not the first time that Israel has inadvertently helped Hamas. In the 1980s, Israel favored the emergence of Hamas in the occupied territories as a counterweight to Fatah.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza rather than negotiate its withdrawal with Abbas and give credit to him and the Palestinian Authority. This also undercut the Palestinian Authority president and strengthened Hamas, which claimed it had driven Israel out by force. Hamas later ousted the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in a military battle and took over full control of the strip.

But this time, the failure to counteract Hamas' political and psychological gains indicates an absence of any long-term strategy for the region - not just on the part of Israel, but on the part of the Obama administration as well. Unless President Obama and Netanyahu devise a plan to bolster Abbas, they may soon find themselves with no Palestinian leaders other than those of Hamas.

The worst course, should the cease-fire fail, would be to let the Gaza militants and their Iranian backers suck Israel into another land war with the Palestinians, which would distract global attention from Syria and threaten Israel's peace treaty with Egypt.

Abbas' effort to get more backing at the United Nations may be the last, best hope to keep the idea of negotiations toward two states alive. Obama and Netanyahu would be wise to support it (and try to shape it) while taking the spotlight off of Gaza.

Otherwise, Israel is headed toward a one-state solution in which it will be outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs - just what Hamas and its Iranian backers want.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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