Palestinian Authority President Confronts Crises on Many Fronts

Times Staff Writer

His treasury is broke, his calls for peace talks with Israel rebuffed, and gun-toting activists in his Fatah party are in a rage over its electoral trouncing by Hamas.

For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently completed his first year in office, an already challenging tenure just became significantly more difficult. Some question whether Abbas, who has proved to be a weak, if well-intentioned figure, can last.

In coming weeks, he will have to negotiate with Hamas over the shape of a new government in the face of threats by the United States and Europe to withhold aid if the Islamic party takes part. Israel says it won't negotiate as long as Hamas keeps its guns and refuses to recognize the Jewish state's existence.

Abbas also faces a rebellion within Fatah, which is being marginalized after four decades in which it was the dominant force in Palestinian politics.

"He is not in a good position," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah. "How is he going to deal with ... Hamas being in the majority and forming a government? How is he going to deal with the anger inside Fatah?"

Final vote tallies released Sunday showed that Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, two fewer than indicated by preliminary tallies last week, compared with 45 for Fatah.

Abbas won a separate election for president to succeed the late Yasser Arafat a year ago.

Despite being weakened by his party's showing in last week's vote, the 70-year-old leader has given every indication he wants to remain president, Palestinian officials say. Almost everyone else seems to want him to do so.

Hamas, which never expected to win an outright majority, needs Abbas as a bridge to Fatah and the outside world. The United States and Europe, which classify Hamas as a terrorist group, can deal with Abbas instead.

The Bush administration was quick to express its support for him after Hamas was declared the winner of Wednesday's elections.

Even Israeli leaders are holding out hope that Abbas, a moderate, remains in the leadership spot, despite their disappointment over his failure to rein in militias since being elected. Israeli media quoted Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security agency, as saying during a Cabinet meeting Sunday that Abbas' resignation would be a disaster.

"He's the shield of the new government, the new order," Jarbawi said. "Everybody needs him: the Israelis, the international community, the Americans, the Europeans -- everybody. Even Hamas needs him to be the shield of Hamas in front of the international community."

Abbas is to name a new prime minister based on recommendations from the Hamas leadership.

Its majority means Hamas also has the power to determine who is in the next Cabinet. Hamas leaders would like to include Fatah, but many Fatah leaders prefer to sit out in hopes that Hamas will prove incapable of governing.

Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, has good relations with Hamas and will surely end up in the middle of these negotiations. But Fatah will demand that in exchange for joining the government Hamas drop its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and acknowledge agreements in place between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Without the support of Abu Mazen and Fatah, I can't see how any government could work, even if we only have four votes," Abbas' spokesman, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said Sunday. "We want them to change."

The founding charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel, and Hamas leaders insisted after the vote that they would not recognize the Jewish state. But Ziad abu Amr, an independent lawmaker from Gaza City endorsed by Hamas, said he believed that Hamas leaders were prepared to alter their policies. "Hamas is fully aware of what it needs to do to be recognized by the international community," he said.

Abu Amr said Abbas still held significant clout, despite the big electoral loss.

One possibility is that the new Cabinet will be made up of technocrats who do not belong to Hamas or Fatah, but pass muster with the Hamas-led parliament. Analysts said such a move might enable the United States, Europe and perhaps Israel to maintain ties with the Palestinian Authority without violating pledges to reject dealings with Hamas.

Abbas also faces a broken Fatah. Since the loss, young militants have taken to the streets in Gaza to demand removal of the party's leadership. Some senior members, who had urged Abbas to postpone the election for fear of losing it, grouse that the party failed even after giving a more prominent role to younger activists who had complained of being shunted aside.

On Sunday, the party's Central Committee purged dozens of members who broke off to run as independents, diluting the pro-Fatah votes in key districts.

But the election loss also was in part a referendum on Abbas.

During a long career in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas has developed a reputation for avoiding tough fights. He has done little to alter that image since winning election to lead the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas, whose demeanor matches his somber dark suits, never capitalized on his wide margin of victory last year. Associates said he considered resigning two months ago over the government's worsening financial woes and a lack of progress in relations with Israel.

Critics say Abbas failed to use the power of his office at a time when Palestinians were eager for changes, including a crackdown on corruption, which many voters cited in explaining why they voted for Hamas.

Abbas also came under Israeli criticism for not seeking to disarm militias, such as the armed wing of Hamas, as the Palestinians promised under the terms of the U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the "road map."

Instead, Abbas brokered an agreement in March under which most of the groups promised to observe a cease-fire toward Israel. In return, he promised legislative elections, and Hamas agreed to take part for the first time.

Abbas hopes that by joining the mainstream, Hamas will become more moderate. His defenders point out that the group, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis in recent years, did not carry out a single bombing in Israel last year. The truce agreement also drastically reduced the number of attacks by most other groups.

But in a sign of concern about possible upheaval, Abbas has assumed control of the nearly 60,000 members of the Palestinian security forces. That move is intended to prevent any wholesale firing of officers, many of whom are members of Fatah, by a Hamas-run administration.

Hamas' win has also cast doubt over the Palestinian Authority's finances. The United States and Europe, which provide millions of dollars in aid, warned that a Hamas victory could jeopardize aid if the group did not alter its positions on Israel and the use of violence.

On Sunday, Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said he had not decided whether to transfer millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues collected monthly by Israel. Israeli officials had said Friday that they would proceed with the transfers during the period before Hamas takes office.

Palestinians say the $45 million monthly in taxes and customs duties, collected by Israel under an interim peace agreement, are needed to pay 135,000 public employees at a time when the Palestinian Authority budget is already in the red.

Abbas' spokesman said the key to all the Palestinians' problems was progress on peace with Israel.

"I don't think he's going to lose hope. He doesn't represent himself. He represents the Authority and Fatah, of course," Abu Rudaineh said. "We passed very difficult times in the past, and we survived."

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