US Strategy in Doubt as Abbas Loses Popular Support
WASHINGTON - Just two months ago, many western commentators were jubilant that Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S.-supported head of both the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the interim Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), was making a comeback and reducing the influence in Palestinian society of the Islamist movement Hamas.
But a series of events in recent weeks has sent Abbas's level of support from his people into a nosedive. The most serious has been the reaction among Palestinians to a decision Abbas or someone close to him made to postpone any further U.N. action on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report into the atrocities committed during last winter's Israel-Gaza war.
Richard Goldstone, a very distinguished South African jurist and war-crimes prosecutor, presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva on Sep. 29. It contained a recommendation that the HRC forward the report's lengthy and detailed findings regarding wrongdoing by both sides to the Security Council for possible further action.
But when the HRC discussed Goldstone's report on Oct. 1, the PLO's representative requested that the HRC sit on the report until next March before doing anything further.
Most Palestinians, both within and outside their historic homeland, were outraged. They demanded to know who took that decision, and why. Suspicion rapidly settled on Abbas himself- and it was not allayed by his speedy declaration that the Fatah movement, which he heads, would set up its own internal investigation into how the decision had been made.
Palestinian media came out with two, perhaps overlapping, explanations of what had persuaded Abbas - or someone very close to him - to block any speedy action on the Goldstone Report.
One focused on economic incentives that Israel held out to a well-connected Palestinian company eager to acquire the bandwidth that it needs to set up a new cell-phone service.
The other report, from Shahab news agency, concerned a different, even more insidious form of Israeli blackmail.
Shahab reported that PA/PLO representatives here in Washington were persuaded to drop their support for speedy action on Goldstone after they were played a videotape and an audiotape, reportedly recorded during last winter's war, in which Abbas and a key security aide, Tayyib Abdul-Rahim, both urged Israel's leaders to continue and even escalate their attack on Gaza.
Those allegations struck a chord with many Palestinians who, during the war, had noted the refusal of most members of the PLO's far-flung diplomatic corps to say or do anything to oppose Israel's lengthy and very harmful pounding of Gaza's overwhelmingly civilian population.
Inside the West Bank, meanwhile, the PA's security forces (commanded in part by Abdul-Rahim) suppressed many of the demonstrations that erupted against the war, and arrested scores of Gaza solidarity activists.
It is not clear whether the Israeli government sees the political pummeling Abbas has taken as a result of his Goldstone decision as welcome, because it reduces his ability to negotiate peace in the name of the whole Palestinian people, or as regrettable, given the strength of his opposition to Hamas; but nonetheless necessary, as a way for Israel to ensure the blocking of the process Goldstone recommended.
One thing that is clear is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been very serious about blocking any Security Council consideration of the Goldstone Report. Government spokesmen have launched nasty personal smears against Goldstone, who himself is Jewish, and whose daughter describes him as a committed Zionist.
Netanyahu's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, said Thursday that the Goldstone Report is more insidious than the Holocaust denial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If Goldstone's recommendations are accepted by the international community, Oren said, this would paralyse western democracies from defending themselves against terrorism.
He also noted the "intense cooperation" his government had received from the Barack Obama administration in fending off the "danger" it judged the Goldstone Report posed to Israel and the west.
Oren and Netanyahu might be feeling good about fending off this "danger". But the hardball way they - and apparently also U.S. officials - treated Abbas over this affair have considerably complicated the diplomatic game-plan that the Obama administration previously seemed to be following, which relied strongly on building up Abbas's and Fatah's political weight relative to that of Hamas.
It is that political balance that has now been tipped - perhaps decisively.
This is a big change since early August, when Abbas won many plaudits from western leaders for having organised a successful "General Conference" for Fatah - the movement's first such gathering in 20 years.
The combination of that successful Fatah conference and the continued infusion of western funding into the PA, where it is controlled by both Abbas and the technocratic, pro-western Ramallah Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, encouraged some western governments to think that these two men could now marginalise Hamas from having any real impact on peace negotiations.
Now, that plan looks far less feasible. Abbas's standing has been reduced not only by the decisions he most recently made regarding Goldstone, but also by the compete stasis in Washington's peace diplomacy, Washington's failure to win a settlement freeze from Netanyahu, as it had promised to do - and by the humiliating way Abbas was forced to engage in a "three-way" meeting with Netanyahu and Obama at the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
Obama's special envoy George Mitchell is back in Jerusalem Friday on the seventh or eighth of his quick shuttle tours around the Israeli-Arab region. On Saturday he will be in Ramallah.
Al-Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reported from occupied East Jerusalem that the city's Palestinians "are very upset and angry and becoming increasingly disappointed with this new U.S. approach, which is bringing nothing new to the table".
Meantime, there is increasing talk amongst both Palestinians and many Israelis of the possibility of a new intifada. If this does occur, it is most likely to be sparked by the massive wave of colonisation and linked activities the Israeli authorities have been undertaking in East Jerusalem.
Senior diplomats from neighbouring Arab states have warned that, given Jerusalem's intense significance for Arabs and Muslims everywhere, the effects of a new, Jerusalem-focused intifada could be felt far beyond Palestine.
*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org