Abbas and Netanyahu face internal doubts

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to continue efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. His plan for renewed talks calls for the release of Palestinians serving time in Israeli prisons since before the Oslo Accords, a freeze on settlement construction, and international assistance of about $4 billion to support the Palestinian economy. The main challenge Kerry has faced in moving President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forward does not stem from the distance in their positions, but rather, and possibly more importantly, from the internal crisis each faces in their home institutions – the Fatah Movement and the Likud Party.

Abbas and Netanyahu have gradually lost standing within their political homes, though what this means for each of them is different. Even if they genuinely wanted to reach an agreement, internal dissent and their precarious positions in their own parties could constitute a major stumbling block on this front.

Fatah is in crisis not only for losing control over Gaza Strip following the 2007 Fatah-Hamas conflict, but also due to growing leadership fragmentation and discontent on the grassroots level that continue to threaten Abbas. The conflict among the leadership became clear in the Palestinian local elections of October 2012. During the elections, Mohammad Dahlan’s supporters ran as candidates in many localities and challenged Abbas loyalists. Although Dahlan is out of the Palestinian Authority territories, his supporters swept the elections in the major cities, including Ramallah and Nablus. Dahlan controls the strongest and most organized Fatah-affiliated power network in both Gaza and the West Bank and has persistently worked to undermine Abbas’ control over Fatah.

Marwan Barghouti, who is currently jailed in Israel and who is likely to receive support from Dahlan in any future contest with Abbas, is another threat to the Palestinian president. Openly contesting Abbas’ political strategies and advocating resistance against Israel, Barghouti has become perhaps the most popular Palestinian public figure.

According to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, if new presidential elections were held today, Barghouti would defeat both Abbas and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. In a contest between Barghouti and Haniyeh, “the former would receive 57 percent and the latter would receive 36 percent of participants’ votes.” If the election included Abbas, Barghouti and Haniyeh, “Barghouti would receive the largest percentage (35 percent) followed by Haniyeh (33 percent), and Abbas (27 percent).”

Barghouti poses a threat to Abbas not only among the general Palestinian public, but also within Fatah. According to the same poll, 45 percent of Fatah supporters would vote for Barghouti, compared with 53 percent for Abbas.

Abbas has also encountered challenges in maintaining his control over the Palestinian Authority’s institutions. This was evident in the recent crisis that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad after weeks of a tug of war with Abbas over power and influence. Officially, the disagreement was over Fayyad’s economic policy, which was sharply criticized by the Fatah Revolutionary Council headed by Abbas. However, the real story was Abbas’ concern about Fayyad’s independence. The closed-door meeting between Fayyad and President Barack Obama in March 2013 looked like a direct challenge to Abbas. Abbas’ attempts to limit the powers of the prime minister led not only to Fayyad’s resignation, but also to the embarrassing resignation of his replacement, Rami Hamdallah, two weeks after taking office. Hamdallah resigned following disagreements with his two deputies, Mohammad Mustafa and Ziad Abu Amr – who were appointed by Abbas – protesting interference with his authority by Abbas’ aides.

This constituted another embarrassment for Abbas, as 59 percent of Palestinians supported Hamdallah’s appointment and his resignation further exposed internal fissures and the president’s loosening control over major political players.

Because of his precarious position, Abbas desperately needs Israeli concessions. An official freeze on settlements construction and a celebratory release of Palestinian prisoners could be touted as small victories and Abbas is therefore unlikely to budge on these as preconditions for peace talks.

But Netanyahu may not be in a position to deliver. While Netanyahu enjoys relative popularity in Israel, he has been gradually losing control over Likud. This was evident in the 2012 party primaries, in which hard-line settlement advocates such as Dani Danon, Zeev Elkin and Moshe Feiglin secured higher places on the Likud list than the more pragmatic politicians that Netanyahu would have preferred to have by his side. Longtime pragmatists – known as the “Likud princes” – such as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, lost their Knesset seats and were replaced by younger hawks.

Since their political elevation, these hawks have worked to constantly embarrass Netanyahu, publicly contradicting his statements about his willingness and desire to arrive at a negotiated two-state agreement with the Palestinians. For every “give peace a chance” statement by Netanyahu, a rival statement saying that Likud would block any move to promote a two-state solution has been issued throughout the saga of Kerry’s repeated visits.

Adding insult to injury, these hard-line positions and the headache they have caused Netanyahu were rewarded in the June 30, 2013, election for the Likud Party organs in which Danon was elected chair of the Likud’s Central Committee and Zeev Elkin became head of the party’s ideological body. Netanyahu, knowing he did not stand a chance against the popular rightist members of the Knesset, did not even run candidates on his behalf. Now in control of the Likud’s central organs, the hard-liners are better positioned to block steps to advance an agreement with the Palestinians. Declaring an official settlements construction freeze would get Netanyahu in serious trouble with his party. But even if he chose to brave confrontation in the Likud and declared a freeze, his party organs could block other measures, such as replacing the Likud’s coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi – The Settlers’ Party – with the Labor Party.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu have been challenged at home. For Abbas this means he must score a victory in the form of a settlement freeze and prisoners release in order to boost – however slightly – his legitimacy and popularity. For Netanyahu, on the other hand, the internal challenge means he must try to please the hawkish settlement supporters that dominate his party by resisting Abbas’ preconditions, especially the settlement freeze.

To move forward, the two leaders will have to disregard their internal challengers. This might be easier for Netanyahu who still enjoys popularity outside his party among the general Israeli public. Abbas, on the other hand, risks losing everything if he reneges on the preconditions he had set for renewed talks.

Mahmoud Jaraba is a doctoral candidate in the Departments of Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. He is the author of “Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace” (Ramallah: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2010). Lihi Ben Shitrit is an assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 15, 2013, on page 7.




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