Hugh Naylor
The National
January 13, 2011 - 1:00am

Aides describe his mood as "invigorated". Rights activists say his security forces are fighting dissent more effectively. And while staking his credibility on negotiating with Israel, analysts say the recent failure of direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks has yet to damage his popularity.

For a leader who is rumoured regularly to be on the brink of quitting, the political fortunes of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, no longer seem so gloomy.

"His spirits are noticeably much higher and he's much more in control of things," said Maher al Masri, an influential Palestinian businessman and politician. "I think he has gained a lot of political and public support because of the strong stands he's taken recently."

Members of his inner circle, who have been working alongside him since their exile with Yasser Arafat in Tunisia in the 1980s, agree.

"He's invigorated. He acts like he's a young man again," said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator in peace talks with Israel who accompanied the president on a recent trip to South America.

At a lavish ceremony in Brazil last month, the Palestinian leader laid the first stone of what will form the first Palestinian embassy in South America. This comes amid a series of diplomatic successes that have included recognitions of an independent Palestinian state from several Latin American countries, as well as having Palestinian diplomatic missions in Europe upgraded to embassy status.

"He also feels that he has support from many Israeli groups and Jewish groups, in both Europe and America, and he's pursuing a Security Council resolution to condemn Israel's settlements," said Mr Shaath. "So he's feeling quite good."

Not so long ago, his political prognosis was poor. Aides to Mr Abbas, describing the 75-year-old president as burnt-out and frustrated, were hinting at his imminent resignation and a possible dissolution of the PA because of the stagnation of the peace process.

A primary architect of the Oslo peace accords, Mr Abbas has long preferred negotiations to violence. For example, he vociferously opposed the militarisation of the second intifada.

Since being elected president in 2005, he has come back empty-handed from talks with Israel and remained in the proverbial shadow of the late Yasser Arafat.

In September, he suspended his participation in the most recent round of direct negotiations with Israel because Israel refused to extend a ban on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Critics cite the failed talks, as well as his inability to patch up relations with Hamas, as evidence of a failed agenda. Moreover, they say, he would step down were he not propped up by outside powers. After extending his presidential term indefinitely, he effectively rules by decree.

"Abbas cannot resign," said Abdul-Sattar Kassem, a harsh critic of the PA and professor of political science at An-Najah National University. "He can only do this when the United States and Israel ensure that the next president is their man and is capable to carry out their political agenda."

Yet others are not so conspiratorial, and say recent Palestinian diplomatic initiatives have, in fact, earned the president and his government noteworthy public support.

George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst and co-founder of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, said attempting to get the UN Security Council to condemn construction on Israel's settlements is being perceived as a "diplomatic form of resistance".

"Now that negotiations have stopped," he said, "the PA has taken a more aggressive role, and I think there is domestic support for that."

Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, said his organisation's research suggests that Mr Abbas' support has remained unchanged. "It's not clear that the lack of progress with the negotiations is hurting him," he said.

While Palestinians view negotiations with Israel as "futile", they generally do not oppose them. Rather, Mr Shikaki said, they currently oppose resorting to violence because of lingering "battle fatigue" from the second intifada, and "therefore they don't punish Abbas for pursuing negotiations".

At the same time, according to rights groups, the president's men are punishing dissent. Alarming numbers of complaints about Mr Abbas's US-trained and US-funded security forces, they say, have surfaced that include politically motivated arrests and prison abuse.

Randa Siniora, the executive director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, said PA security forces had begun acting with near-impunity in the West Bank. Scores of Hamas supporters as well as critics of the PA's policies are reportedly being arbitrarily detained and, in some cases, tried illegally in military tribunals.

"If the political elite doesn't intervene and stop this, then I think we are gradually slipping into a police state," she said.

The harsh measures seem to have benefitted Mr Abbas, who, in addition to being the PA's president, also serves at chairman for both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the West Bank's Fatah political faction.

An example is the recent treatment of Mohammed Dahlan, said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, founder and chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

Political observers have described the man who once was considered an heir-apparent to Arafat as mounting the beginnings a coup d'état. But, reportedly at Mr Abbas' behest, Mr Dahlan was stripped of his political portfolio, suspended from participating in Fatah political gatherings and, by most accounts, put back in his place.

The net effect, said Mr Abdul-Hadi, was to bring Fatah's usually fractious senior leadership more closely in line behind Mr Abbas.

"This small episode confirmed again that he is the boss," he said.

"They didn't necessarily become loyal to Abbas, but were instead looking out for their own survival in a system which is governed by him."


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