Abbas Tours Arab States Seeking Support and Legitimacy Ahead of Poll

Five weeks before Palestinian Authority presidential elections, front-runner Mahmoud Abbas took a campaign swing — through the Arab world. Along with P.A. Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, Abbas met heads of state and Palestinian refugees, working hard to establish himself as the inevitable new Palestinian leader.

It was worth the trip: Abbas received blessings from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

He also got backing from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, in addition to a warm reception from leaders of refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.

In Kuwait, Abbas apologized for Palestinian support for Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Kuwait’s prime minister, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed A-Sabah, though, said an apology was not necessary and that the matter of the Palestinian leadership’s support for Saddam “has been closed.”

In visiting Damascus, the first such visit by a top Palestinian political leader in years, Abbas had three major objectives:

To gain political credibility in the Arab world despite his image as a moderate backed by Israel and the United States;

To legitimize himself among Palestinian terrorist groups — such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — that maintain bases in Damascus; and

To blunt the potential threat these groups could pose to stability in the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas’ achieved his objectives, at least in part.

Although Syria’s Assad is looking to pursue a moderate course in an effort to placate the Americans — who are demanding that Syria stop supporting terrorist groups and pull its troops from Lebanon — Abbas left Damascus puzzled.

Despite the warm reception he received in Syria, Abbas feels Syria has not exerted sufficient pressure on Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus to come together with their counterparts in the Palestinian territories so that Fatah, the dominant Palestinian political movement, can negotiate with one partner, rather than having to maneuver between Gaza and Damascus.

Assad is unlikely to take drastic measures against the Palestinian groups because their presence in Damascus allows him to influence events in the Palestinian territories and in possible negotiations with Israel.

One idea raised this past week was the establishment of a Palestinian embassy in Damascus that would include officials from the various Palestinian organizations.

In another significant development, Abbas got the support of longtime PLO rival Farouk Kaddoumi, the newly elected chairman of the Fatah party and a strong opponent of the Oslo Accords and the peace process.

Further, Abbas and Qurei were warmly received in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, where residents tend to take a hard line on any Palestinian concessions to Israel, particularly on the demand that Palestinian refugees be granted a “right of return” to lands they left 56 years ago in Israel proper.

Abbas is one of the founding members of Fatah. He was a signatory to the 1993 Declaration of Principles that launched the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and for decades was PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s right-hand man.

In March of 2003, Abbas was named the P.A.’s first prime minister, though he resigned in frustration after just four months in office, feeling he had been undermined both by Arafat and by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Following Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, Abbas was selected as PLO chairman.

Abbas has said he wants “an agreed-upon peace,” and on Tuesday he called for an end to violence against Israelis.

“Our uprising should be social and popular in nature,” Abbas told the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

“Resorting to arms has been harmful” to Palestinians, he said. “This should be stopped and calm restored.”

But he has faced criticism on this front.

“What Abbas actually seems to be offering is a complete, unconditional end to all armed resistance and self-defense against Israeli aggression in exchange for no commitment from the Israeli occupier or its American and European backers,” said Hassan Abu Nimah, editor of The Electronic Intifada, a Palestinian Internet publication.

Abbas’ Mideast tour has led one Palestinian election-monitoring official to blast Arab leaders for promoting Abbas in the Palestinian election.

Aref Jaffal told journalists in Amman that the elections commission “feels the interference of the Arab leaders by receiving and supporting Abbas.”

Having mended relations with Syria and Kuwait — relations that Arafat had spoiled — Abbas is now free to deal with the local scene. He will need to perform a political high-wire act in order to keep the Americans and Israelis satisfied without alienating the opposition.

Thus, when Hamas blew up an IDF post in Gaza earlier this week, killing five soldiers and wounding several more, Abbas chose not to condemn the attack. Attacks on soldiers are considered legitimate by all Palestinian factions, though Abbas recently had asked Hamas to suspend its violence until after the P.A. elections.

In a blistering editorial Tuesday, the Jerusalem Post wrote that Abbas must decide immediately if he will continue Arafat’s practice of allowing violent attacks to be carried out from Palestinian territory, while trying to shirk any responsibility.

Abbas’ choice to keep his mouth shut in the face of the Gaza escalation took on added importance after Fatah militia leader Marwan Barghouti withdrew his candidacy for the P.A. presidency Sunday.

Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his involvement in terrorist attacks, was considered the only politician who could realistically challenge Abbas. His withdrawal statement included a call on Abbas to continue the Palestinian uprising, and even to include support for violence in Fatah’s official platform.

While Abbas may have felt a need to play to the Palestinian street by implicitly condoning the Gaza attack, a renewed escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence also could threaten his hold on power.

Hamas leaders declared this week that they would continue their struggle against “the occupation” — and less stability likely will mean fewer votes for Abbas.

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