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Abbas finds Arafat's shoes tough to fill

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, stuck in a job he reluctantly sought and facing a rising tide of criticism, is losing power, credibility and legitimacy after only a year in office.

Trying to succeed the iconic Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader was an almost insurmountable challenge, and Israeli and American officials as well as millions of frustrated Palestinians are losing faith in a man they'd hoped would rejuvenate the economy, curb official corruption, crack down on renegade street gangs and revive negotiations with Israel on the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The inability of the moderate 70-year-old president—who's known as Abu Mazen—to lead the Palestinians effectively and the stroke that's felled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have left the near-term prospects for Palestinian-Israeli cooperation pretty much in ruins and Abbas' once-dominant Fatah political party in danger of losing control to militant Islamists.

"Abu Mazen has been a disappointment for all of us," said Nasser Jumaa, a Fatah candidate in next week's parliamentary elections and a leader of the group's military branch in the West Bank city of Nablus. "I'm worried that Hamas could win not because of its strength but because of Fatah's weakness."

The prospect that militants led by Hamas could see big gains in the elections has some Abbas allies worried that the president will resign if his party has a major setback, throwing the Palestinian government—not to mention moribund peace talks—into further disarray.

Rafiq Husseini, Abbas' chief of staff, conceded that 2005 had been a difficult and frustrating year for the president, who's told associates that he won't seek a second four-year term.

"He thinks that this one year in office has been the heaviest of his life, which has been very traumatic, very difficult," Husseini said. "Three more years will be almost as difficult. Therefore, I don't think any human being—super or not super—would be able to manage any more."

While Abbas has faced serious challenges, Husseini said, he's made slow progress by rooting out corrupt government officials, consolidating the diffuse Palestinian security forces that Arafat created and ensuring that violence didn't derail the Jan. 25 elections.

In many ways, the legislative elections, the first in a decade, are a referendum on Abbas, who came to power buoyed by widespread expectations that the seasoned political negotiator could launch a new era of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

In perhaps his biggest triumph, Abbas was able to quickly convince most of the hard-line militant groups, including Hamas, to agree to a de facto cease-fire with Israel that led to a 60 percent drop in the number of fatal attacks on Israelis last year.

But the difficult feat won him little good will from Sharon, who cut off talks with him last year even before Abbas was sworn in as president on Jan. 15, because of a deadly suicide bombing at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Although relations between Abbas and Sharon thawed, they never really warmed, and Sharon instead pressed ahead with his unilateral plan to shut down all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

While talks with Israel stalled, Abbas began to lose the good will of Palestinians, who had thought that their new president would bring them fresh opportunities.

Instead, Abbas appeared uncertain about how to deal with the competing factions and dysfunctional political system created by Arafat, who ruled more by fiat than by consensus until he died in a Paris hospital in November 2004.

Some aides said Abbas tried too much to be like Arafat and too little to renovate the long-neglected government to support him.

The biggest problems came on the streets of Gaza, where various armed groups, including those supposedly loyal to Abbas, tested him. One faction killed a widely reviled Palestinian security adviser at his house a few blocks from Abbas' Gaza City home. Others waged street battles with Palestinian police, who responded by taking over government buildings to complain that they didn't have enough firepower to fight back.

Militants also embraced a new tactic: kidnapping foreigners for short periods to pressure Abbas into giving them jobs or releasing friends and relatives from Palestinian jails.

The kidnappers have acted with near impunity and, in at least one prominent case, put pressure on the Palestinian government to free a militant leader who was accused of kidnapping a British aid worker and her parents.

In response, Abbas would appear on television and demand that the factions obey his oft-repeated mantra: one authority, one gun, one law.

His pleas mostly were ignored. The tests of his power, some close to him said, left him angry, depressed and frustrated.

"He stepped into Arafat's shoes, but he didn't realize that Arafat's shoes were far too big for him," said one Abbas adviser who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing campaign.

He sought to appease militants by putting them on the government payroll as police officers and soldiers. But that created a bloated work force that sought and received pay raises that have left the Palestinian government in danger of bankruptcy.

Nigel Roberts, the outgoing director of the World Bank's West Bank and Gaza Strip program, said he was perplexed by Abbas' inertia on so many fronts.

"I think there is still a lot of good will towards Abu Mazen in the international community, but I think there's frustration that, in a year in which he was elected with a strong mandate on a platform of reform, that so little has happened," Roberts said.

That frustration has begun to taint the views of Israeli and American officials, who privately voice disappointment with Abbas' performance.

While Fatah has been disintegrating, Hamas has been slowly gaining political footholds. Its power has grown in every local election as its candidates have won majorities in key Palestinian cities. Buoyed by its success, Hamas decided to end its boycott of the legislative races, which it viewed as a product of illegitimate talks with Israel.

Hamas has positioned itself as the anti-Fatah: a disciplined, security-conscious, anti-corruption party that's ready to give Palestinians the reforms they crave.

Polls show Fatah leading Hamas candidates, but the gap is narrowing as voters begin paying closer attention to the elections. A strong Hamas victory will create a conundrum for Israeli and American officials, who warn that future peace deals will be jeopardized if the group doesn't change course and accept Israel's right to exist.

Ziad Abu Amr, a moderate lawmaker from Gaza City once closely allied with Abbas who's running with the backing of Hamas, said bringing the Islamic movement into the government could mute the group's militant stance and give Abbas a mandate to enact the changes he promised.

"There was a state of disarray within the Palestinian Authority, and Abu Mazen didn't have the powerful tools to affect that process of reform," he said. "He was overwhelmed, but I think he is putting his feet on the right track again with the elections and he will get a lot of support from the new council, and I think that the process of reform will start after the election."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060112 Palestine elect

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