President Mahmoud Abbas is under the gun. The Palestinian leader is in Washington Monday for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the prolongation of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel — a concession viewed with much suspicion in the West Bank. Abbas’ visit, which comes two weeks after a similar trip by his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, coincided with raucous celebrations at home, where thousands held rallies to support the Palestinian leader and protest anticipated American elbow twisting.
Palestinian hostility to perceived pressure from Washington (and Israel) to extend peace negotiations past the April 29 deadline is only the latest stumbling block in the nine-month-old peace process. Abbas’ ruling Fatah party is especially indignant at recent rumors that the U.S. may push for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In response to such rumors, Abbas responded last week, “”I am 79 years old and am not ready to end my life with treason.” This as the Israeli premier has been vocally pushing for such recognition.
But with U.S Secretary of State john Kerry hoping to gain an agreement on a formal framework before peace talks expire, the clock is running out. (The Americans, whose regional credibility is at stake and who, in the wake of the embarrassment of their Crimea inaction, could use a foreign policy win.) Nonetheless Abbas and Netanyahu alike look fixed on their respective positions on the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both camps as their capital, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Here Abbas, his own moderate tendencies aside, is handicapped by a Palestinian consensus firmly against concessions and pessimistic about the current peace talks.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Palestinian attitudes towards peace talks
During Monday’s visit, Obama and Kerry will up the pressure on Abbas, who like Netanyahu, doesn’t want to be blamed for torpedoing peace negotiations. (In a Sunday meeting, the secretary of state told Abbas he has mere weeks to “make tough political decisions.”) Yet, the dangers of adopting a conciliatory approach are manifold for the Palestinian leader. Fatah’s rival group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, is waiting to pounce on Abbas if he is seen as caving and take back some of the political influence it has lost in recent months. As is his domestic rival (and former protégé) Mohammed Dahlan, with whom Abbas has been engaged in a vicious, and unusually mediatized, mud-slinging match. Dahlan, whose name is being increasingly cited as a likely presidential candidate to replace Abbas, is already playing up doubts about Abbas’ stance, telling Egyptian television, “We all know that you [Abbas] are going there only to extend the negotiations.”
Perhaps. After all, though agreeing to an extension could earn Abbas some domestic backlash, it offers the Palestinian leader a way to avoid thorny concessions while still appearing to play nice with Washington (whose support he will need if the Palestinians’ reported Plan B — a “diplomatic intifada” — ever comes to fruition). Abbas could also maneuver some key concessions from Israel in exchange for signing an extension agreement, i.e., the release of additional Palestinian prisoners. Look for the Washington visit to end amiably, if not with a clear-cut victory for either Abbas or Obama. Nine months after they began, the peace talks will continue to limp along — minus any real compromise.