Karin Laub
The Statesman (Analysis)
September 26, 2011 - 12:00am

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP — President Mahmoud Abbas' surge of popularity following his bid for U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state is bound to give him a stronger hand against the rival Hamas group as they prepare to resume talks on a stalled power-sharing deal next week.

The Islamic militant rulers of Gaza have dismissed Abbas' recognition quest as futile. Still, they appear unnerved by his new image as a tough leader standing up to the Americans, suppressing shows of support for him. In one Gaza City cafe, Hamas security agents switched off a TV showing Abbas' speech to the U.N. General Assembly and detained the owner.

Despite such tensions, the recent developments may mean future common ground.

Throughout the Palestinian areas, Abbas' decision to seek U.N. recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem is being heralded as a major policy shift. For the first time, he is openly bypassing negotiations with Israel, defying the Obama administration on a fundamental issue. This could also make it easier for Abbas and Hamas to find ways to work together and repair their rift.

The Islamists have long opposed negotiations, refusing to recognize Israel or renounce violence. Abbas, ardent in his rejection of violence, has preferred to establish a state through agreement. But he and his aides say privately they see no possibility of striking such a deal with Israel's traditionally hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

On his weekend flight home from New York, Abbas hinted at the possibility of sounding out Hamas about a shared political vision, something he has not raised before.

"There will be deep talks with Hamas, not just about reconciliation, but also about the general horizon" of the Palestinians' future, he said.

For the past four years, the political rift and animosity between the two sides has run deep.

Hamas, shunned by much of the world, overran Gaza in 2007 after defeating Abbas loyalists in fighting and set up a rival government to his internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Each side went after the other's supporters.

Repeated reconciliation attempts failed, in part because of opposition from the U.S. and Egypt, which had acted as a mediator but also wanted to rein in the Islamic militants on its doorstep.

After pro-Western Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in a popular uprising in February, Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement reached an "reconciliation" agreement in principle to set up a joint interim government that would pave the way for general elections. The deal had many holes, and Abbas put implementation talks on hold as he prepared for the U.N. bid.

The talks are set to resume next week in Cairo, said Azzam al-Ahmed, the top Fatah negotiator. He confirmed that his mandate is broader than before.

"We don't only want to discuss the terms of reconciliation," he said. "We want to include the Palestinian future ... and this is by recommendation from the president."

But the bitter rivalry between the two sides is never far from the surface.

In the days before Abbas' U.N. speech, Hamas banned all public shows of support for the Palestinian president. Hamas alleged the edict had the support of Fatah, ostensibly to avoid friction, although some Fatah leaders in Gaza denied they had agreed to stay off the streets. In the end, only a tiny PLO faction rallied for Abbas.

At the time of the speech, Hamas security agents entered a Gaza City restaurant, "The Gallery," ordered the owner to switch off the TV tuned to the U.N. proceedings and took him in for questioning, said Khalil Shaheen, a Gaza human rights activist. The restaurant was mainly targeted as a meeting place for anti-Hamas activists, Shaheen said, noting that several other coffee shops in town were able to keep TVs tuned to the speech without interference.

Hamas leaders initially assailed Abbas for his U.N. initiative. They complained he had not coordinated with them, that going to the U.N. was an empty gesture and that it would commit to the idea that a Palestinian state be limited to the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Some Hamas leaders have said they could accept a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, but that it would be a temporary arrangement. Hamas' founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Yehiye Moussa, a Hamas legislator, alleged Abbas went to the U.N. to "show himself as the hero of the moment."

However, Mohammed Awad, the foreign minister of the Hamas government, said Sunday that Abbas' speech contained "important positive points," suggesting Hamas was recalibrating its initial negative reaction when it became apparent that Abbas' defiance had struck a nerve with ordinary Palestinians and that he enjoyed bipartisan support.

Even some Hamas loyalists praised Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.

"Abu Mazen spoke the truth when he told the world about our suffering and about our national rights," said Salman Radi, a 21-year-old Hamas supporter and student at Gaza City's Islamic University. "I hope he will take more actions so we can believe him."

Since becoming president, Abbas had stuck to negotiations with Israel as the only viable option, despite many setbacks. This position weakened him at home, since the talks failed to deliver tangible agreements.

Israel's view is that the Palestinians have turned down or ignored serious peace offers and therefore share the blame for the impasse.

In Friday's speech, Abbas made clear that a resumption of negotiations is unlikely. He told the world he'll only go back to talks if Israel freezes settlement construction and accepts the pre-1967 borders as a basis for talks — demands Netanyahu has said he would not accept.

Those demands were also noticeably absent in a weekend call for new negotiations by the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Still, the world community has for years opposed settlement construction and President Barack Obama this year riled Netanyahu by endorsing the 1967 lines, with land swaps, as the basis for a future border.

With talks with Israel unlikely, West Bank analyst Bassem Zbeidy said Hamas will also find it more difficult to discredit Abbas.

Others said that reconciliation talks might now stand a better chance, arguing that Abbas has a stronger motive to court Hamas. In the past, Abbas wasn't really serious about reconciliation because he was pursuing negotiations with Israel and because Washington opposed a power-sharing deal, said analyst Hani al-Masri.

Much depends on Hamas: If the Islamists refuse to budge from their militant positions, they might turn into a political burden as Abbas lobbies for international support for a Palestinian state.

Abbas' initial bid for full U.N. membership is bound to fail because the U.S. has already said it would veto the request, even if the Palestinians won the necessary nine of 15 votes in the Security Council. The council will meet Wednesday to start the process of formally considering the Palestinian request for membership, the council president said Monday.

Once rejected by the Security Council, the Palestinians could seek General Assembly approval of the lesser status of nonmember observer state, with at least implied recognition of the pre-1967 war frontier.

Abbas may not want to put off international supporters during this sensitive period by getting too close to Hamas, said Hassan Kashef, a Gaza-based analyst.

"Abu Mazen will speak more loudly about unity, but unity has many difficult problems and needs time," he said. "We can speak about unity every day, but we can delay it."

Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Karin Laub is chief Ramallah correspondent and has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987. Ibrahim Barzak has been the AP correspondent in Gaza City since 1992.


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