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Abbas’ delicate Mideast balancing act

Mahmoud Abbas landed in Paris on Sunday ahead of the expiration of a critical Israeli deadline on settlements. The Palestinian leader gave himself new room to manoeuvre by hinting talks may not stall even if Israel resumes building settlements.


The Mideast peace process stands at a crossroads on Sunday as leaders from both sides wait for a critical deadline to pass over the future of settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The 10-month old moratorium on new settlement construction is set to expire on Sunday at 11:59 p.m., casting new doubts over a deal on future settlements and the broader Arab-Israeli peace process.

On his way to Paris on Sunday where he is to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the stalled peace talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas backed away from his earlier threats to immediately walk out of all negotiations with the Israelis if settlement construction resumed.

Until last week, Abbas was adamant that if the moratorium ended, all talks with the Israelis would be terminated. On Friday he appeared to have changed course in an interview with the Arab newspaper al-Hayat, published on Sunday.  Asked whether he would terminate all talks with the Israelis if the settlement moratorium was not extended, Abbas said: "No, we will go back to the Palestinian institutions, to the Arab follow-up committee."
"This interview in Al Hayat is extremely surprising and marks a huge shift,” reports Jerusalem-based FRANCE 24 correspondent Gallagher Fenwick. “He had repeatedly said he would leave the negotiating table if Israel did not yield on the freezing of settlements. If these remarks are confirmed, this represents a very serious political sacrifice for Mahmoud Abbas,” he added.
Need for consensus within Palestinian Authority
The follow-up committee Abbas was referring to in the al-Hayat interview is the Arab League’s Arab Monitoring Committee that is scheduled on Monday to discuss whether or not the Palestinian Authority should continue negotiations with Israel if new settlement construction resumes.
After his talks with the French President, Abbas will then focus his efforts on building a coalition within the Palestinian Authority on how to proceed. The Palestinian leader will oversee discussions among the powerful Central Committee of Fatah and the senior leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization ahead of the Arab League conference in Cairo on October 4. 
Pressure from Hamas
A Palestinian farmer from Nazlat Zeid village harvests an olive tree near the Jewish settlement of Shaked, near the city of Jenin.
A Palestinian farmer from Nazlat Zeid village harvests an olive tree near the Jewish settlement of Shaked, near the city of Jenin.

A week can be a very long time in Arab-Israeli politics.  While Abbas is planning his next steps on how to deal with the end of the Israeli settlement moratorium, he will face new pressures from his domestic rivals in the Islamist Hamas group that governs the Gaza Strip and opposes any recognition of Israel.  Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told the AP that Abbas “should withdraw immediately from the negotiations'' and concentrate on unifying Palestinians to fight Israel.

Squeezed between the Israelis who appear determined to resume building settlements, Hamas’ hard-line stance and a Palestinian population that is growing disillusioned with a seemingly endless peace process, Abbas is under intense pressure.  How he manages to balance these divergent forces will be carefully watched this week in the run-up to the Arab League conference in Cairo.


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