Mahmoud Abbas travels to the US this weekend with only a faint hope that he can salvage something from the Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, Maryland, beginning on Tuesday.
Scarred by the power struggle between his Fatah party and radical Islamists at home, and belittled by his Israeli interlocutors as too weak to deliver, the president of the Palestinian Authority comes to the conference for one reason alone: he has no other option.
Mr Abbas’ allies and advisers admit there is little chance that the Annapolis conference will bring Palestinians closer to their dream of an independent state. There is even doubt whether Israel will agree to freeze all Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank – seen by Palestinian officials as the minimum they hope to achieve at Annapolis.
“We have every right to be worried,” Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister said this week. “If Israel today cannot even come up with a statement to say they are going to freeze settlement activity during this conference, then what should we expect from Israel later, when we go into details on final status issues [such as the borders of a Palestinian state]?”
And yet, Mr al-Malki concedes that Mr Abbas “cannot afford” to miss Annapolis. The Palestinians, he says, must ensure that they are not blamed for the failure of the first serious attempt to end the bloody conflict in seven years: “No one should point their finger at us and say we are responsible.”
Mr Abbas knows that his Islamist opponents from the Hamas group will gain strength should he return empty-handed. Having taking control of the Gaza strip in a violent coup in June, Hamas has already snatched one of the two Palestinian territories from Mr Abbas’ rule. Convinced that the Annapolis talks will come to nought, one Hamas leader proclaimed that the group would soon be “praying in the Muqata”, the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Mr Abbas has spent years telling Palestinians that armed resistance will not deliver an end to the occupation. Now that he can pursue the goal of independent statehood through negotiations, Mr Abbas is under pressure to show that his conciliatory strategy can deliver better results than Hamas’ rocket attacks.
“If this fails and people say that nothing was achieved by this strategy, it will be in favour of the rejectionists,” says Nemer Hammad, one of the president’s political advisers.
A settlement freeze and other improvements on the ground aside, Mr Hammad says the president has two aims at Annapolis: to secure stronger international support and involvement for the peace process, and to kick-start “intense” Israeli-
Palestinian negotiations on Palestinian statehood.
A successful deal, adds Mr al-Malki, would then be put to a referendum to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and abroad. But with Hamas in control of Gaza, it is unclear how such a referendum could be staged – illustrating the difficulties faced by Mr Abbas as he negotiates on behalf of a deeply divided society.
The dilemma facing Mr Abbas is reflected in public opinion: a poll showed that more than 60 per cent of Palestinians expect the meeting to fail. Yet a majority support Mr Abbas’s participation in the talks.
To some analysts, Mr Abbas’s commitment to the talks smacks of desperation. Quoting an Arab proverb, Hani al-Masri, a Ramallah-based political analyst remarks: “To the poor, even spit looks like a coin.”
But while Mr Abbas sees no alternative to talks with Israel, Palestinians see no alternative to Mr Abbas. Respected but unloved, the president remains the most trusted political figure in Palestine, even though his approval ratings are far from impressive.
“Failure at Annapolis will weaken Abbas,” says Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political sciences at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. “But that does not mean he will leave the political scene – there is no replacement in sight.”