Matthew Kalman Contributor
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Sept. 3) -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew back from Washington after his first direct peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an uncertain welcome and an unpredictable political future.
Abbas, already governing on borrowed time since his constitutional term of office expired in January 2009, now appears to be ruling alone as well. Hamas, its rejectionist allies and their Iranian patrons denounced the Washington talks from the start. And once they were under way, Abbas was deserted by key members of his own Fatah group, including imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan.
Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been deserted by key members of Fatah and faces a power struggle at home.
On the ground back home, there is a power struggle going on between independent moderates like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who believes the unborn Palestinian state can be induced through institution building and economic growth, and extremists like Hamas, who favor a Cesarean section through violence.
Tuesday night's attack by Hamas gunmen that killed four Israeli settler civilians, and a similar attack on Wednesday that nearly claimed the lives of a settler rabbi and his wife, could put into question years of confidence-building security measures. The core of that effort, now in question, was to replace Israeli occupation forces with American- and European-trained Palestinian security forces organized by U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.
Responding to months of quiet, Israel had dialed back its forces in the West Bank and removed dozens of military checkpoints. The easing contributed to a spike in economic growth in the West Bank and a tangible improvement in the quality of life of its Palestinian residents. The Hamas attacks were designed to warn Abbas -- and Israel -- that the Palestinian president's rule in the West Bank is as fragile as it was in Gaza, where Hamas overthrew Fatah in 2007 in a violent coup in which more than 400 Fatah supporters were put to death and many more brutally maimed.
"We will liberate the West Bank the same way we liberated the Gaza Strip, through resistance attacks," said Abu Obeideh, spokesman for Ezzadeen Al-Qassem, the armed wing of Hamas.
To forestall any such effort, Palestinian security forces unleashed a massive crackdown on Tuesday night, arresting at least 300 Hamas sympathizers and summoning hundreds more for questioning.
"We will arrest anyone who tries to harm the national interests of our people and to undermine the Palestinian security forces," said Gen. Adnan Damiri, a Palestinian security spokesman.
By Thursday, Palestinian security chiefs said they had found the car involved in Tuesday's killings, arrested two suspects and identified a third.
But Abbas' security forces are caught between a hammer and anvil. By solving Tuesday's killings and bringing the perpetrators to justice, they will play directly into the hands of Hamas, who accuse them of being Israel's proxy militia.
"They have become agents of Israeli security," says Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas lawmaker released in 2009 after more than two years in Israeli detention.
Meanwhile, Abbas' own supporters were already distancing themselves from the widely expected failure of the talks launched in Washington this week.
Barghouti and Dahlan, until now fiercely loyal members of the Fatah Central Committee and both potential future leaders, each criticized Abbas' decision to begin peace talks.
Dahlan told the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat the talks were a replay of previous rounds of "negotiations without results" and chided the Americans -- once his paymasters -- for becoming Netanyahu's spin doctors. Barghouti, in written responses from his Israeli jail cell to questions from Reuters, agreed that the talks "are destined to fail" and said they were "without a popular foundation."
That assessment seemed borne out by popular responses to the talks from Palestinians back home. In Manara Square, the central Ramallah venue for political rallies of all kinds, three silent, black-clad figures stood this week holding placards that declared, "Yes to negotiations with Israel." Passers-by said they were employees of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service. Larger meetings opposing the talks were broken up by anonymous young men.
In Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem, evening Ramadan prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque turned into a political rally on Wednesday, with hundreds of worshippers chanting anti-Abbas slogans and condemning the mass arrests in the West Bank.
"It would have been better if the Palestinian Authority had focused on national reconciliation with Hamas before agreeing to these talks," Hatem Abdel-Kader, a prominent Fatah leader in Jerusalem, told AOL News.
"These talks have deepened divisions and increased tensions among the Palestinians, especially because of the feeling that the Palestinian leadership went to Washington against its will," he said.
Abbas' journey home coincided with the last Friday of Ramadan, marked as "Jerusalem Day" in Iran, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to demand the liberation of Jerusalem, the annihilation of Israel and punishment for the United States.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backs Hamas and other extreme groups with both cash and weapons, accused Abbas and his negotiating team of being accomplices to Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.
"We ask, Who will conduct the talks? Who do they represent? Who gave him the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians? Who has the right to cede part of Palestine to enemies? The region's nations will not allow anyone to give up even one centimeter of Palestine," said Ahmadinejad.
"These talks are doomed to fail," he said, adding, "But more important is that the Zionist regime itself is doomed to collapse anyway."