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Hopes dim as Palestinian president struggles to maintain control

RAMALLAH, West Bank—To many Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas is an invisible president.

Some say they know their media-shy leader's in town only when his motorcade whizzes past en route to the presidential compound. His high-profile foreign trips have tapered off, as have his news conferences.

Young Palestinians, who'd hoped that Abbas' victory in the Jan. 9 presidential election would infuse new blood into his Fatah political faction, rarely talk about him these days. During a pre-election rally April 16 at Al Quds Open University in Ramallah, students hung posters of his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, not of Abbas, whom Palestinians call Abu Mazen.

"He will never be a president like Arafat used to be," said Mohammed Abu Mishrif, 26, a senior majoring in management who heads the university's Fatah Youth League. "Abu Mazen is only walking in the shadow of Arafat."

A hundred days after he was sworn in as Arafat's successor, Abbas is facing challenges from within Fatah, from rival Palestinian factions and from an Israeli government that's been reluctant to make many concessions to him until he cracks down harder on militants.

Hopes that Abbas would lead Palestinians where Arafat either couldn't or wouldn't—to a final peace agreement between Israel and an independent Palestinian state—have diminished to hopes that he can maintain his grip on power.

That, in turn, will depend in part on whether Abbas can navigate among three conflicting powers. First come Palestinians who want a more energetic crackdown on the Palestinian Authority's persistent corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Then come militants who've begun to complain that Abbas isn't consulting with them. Finally, there's Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who says that Abbas has given extremists too much sway over the Palestinian Authority by trying to co-opt them instead of crushing them.

Most Palestinians interviewed for this story said that Abbas is weaker than when he was sworn in on Jan. 15, but they argued that it's Israel's fault, not his. Abbas has made efforts to broker a cease-fire and root out corruption in the Palestinian Authority, but they've gotten only token responses from Sharon, including the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners and the return of the West Bank cities of Jericho and Tulkarem to Palestinian control.

"We have no control to lose," said Ahmed Soboh, a Palestinian deputy information minister, when asked about concerns that Abbas' leadership is faltering. "The Israelis are present everywhere on the West Bank. Mr. Sharon is not facilitating the mission of the new Palestinian president."

Israel's construction of a West Bank security wall and expansion of some Jewish settlements there only reinforce the impression that Abbas is impotent against the Palestinians' longtime adversary, said Mamdouh Nofal, a former confidante of Abbas and a member of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian parliament.

Abbas' political rivals are taking advantage of the perceived cracks in his public support, Nofal said. Squabbles within Fatah are escalating, and Abbas' old guard opponents such as Prime Minister Ahmed Queria and Fatah chairman Farouk Kaddoumi are now openly confronting the 70-year-old president on issues ranging from legislative elections to government reforms.

The militant Islamic group Hamas has threatened to reconsider its cease-fire with Israel if legislative elections scheduled for July 17 are delayed, as Fatah legislators are proposing. Hamas' political wing has swept municipal elections in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in the past four months, and Hamas leaders are hoping for a similar showing in the parliamentary voting.

Abbas and his allies have come under real attack, as well. In late March, after gunmen fired on his Ramallah headquarters, Abbas fired the local police chief and accepted the resignations of a top security chief in the wake of that attack.

Abbas has an assertive side, however. His hard-won cease-fire, which key Palestinian militant factions agreed to on paper for the first time, is holding even though Israeli soldiers have killed a number of Palestinians, including a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the northern West Bank and three Palestinian boys in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas has even persuaded some armed militants to sign pledges to halt violence in exchange for government jobs, an exchange that could fold more than 1,000 militants into the Palestinian Authority in the near future.

Abbas also is forcing into retirement thousands of Palestinian security officers, men he considers obstacles to reaching a peace agreement with Israel thorough dialogue rather than violence. This month, he began the most sweeping reforms in the 11-year history of the Palestinian security forces, ordering the disparate and often feuding agencies to answer to three umbrella organizations, two of them under his Interior Minister Nasser Yousef's leadership.

President Bush has demanded such a consolidation, and if implemented, it would boost Abbas' image in the West.

Last Tuesday, Abbas told Israeli journalists during a rare meeting that his government had collected weapons from all wanted men in Jericho and Tulkarem and would do so in every other city Israel returns to Palestinian control, state-run Israel Radio reported. His security forces have thwarted dozens of terror attacks of late, Abbas said, and seized weapons, explosive devices, mortar shells and bomb belts.

"We took many steps, some transparent, and some unpublicized," the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz quoted him as saying. But "Israel must give me time and help the Palestinian Authority. Why do you need to hold tens of thousands of prisoners? Why do you continue to place checkpoints and to make this difficult for the Palestinians? Why do you need to continue to chase wanted militants despite the agreement to stop doing so?"

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli analyst who co-directs a Palestinian-Israeli cooperation group, said Abbas shouldn't wait for Israel or America to be more forthcoming.

"He needs to be more decisive and not be worried about stepping on toes," said Baskin, adding that he sent a letter last week to Abbas telling him as much. "He should be looking inward to what he can do to strengthen the situation."

There haven't been any recent polls on Abbas' performance, giving the new leader a grace period of sorts, said Dr. Nabil Kukali, the head of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. Kukali believes that many Palestinians are willing to give Abbas more time to fulfill his campaign promises.

Abbas' planned visit to see President Bush in Washington in the coming weeks could provide a badly needed boost, especially if the White House puts in writing its support for a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and revived negotiations to determine a future Palestinian state's borders, Baskin agreed.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mahmoud Abbas

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