Palestinian Leader Abbas Grows Politically Weaker

Israel's raid on a Palestinian prison in the West Bank this week has further eroded Palestinian support for president Mahmoud Abbas. He was already reeling from parliamentary rise to power of the militant Islamist party Hamas. Now many analysts say Israel's jail siege underscores Abbas' continued weakness.

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Israel's raid this week on a Palestinian prison in the West Bank has further eroded Palestinian support for President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was already reeling from the sweeping parliamentary win in January's elections by the militant Islamists of Hamas. Now many analysts say Israel's jail siege underscores Abbas' continued weakness as Hamas works to form a new government.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The prison raid has left many Palestinians humiliated, dispirited and angry. In the West Bank, some of that fury is certainly aimed at Israel, the U.S. and Britain. Minutes after British prison monitors moved out of the Jericho facility, Israeli tanks moved in. Hours later, six high profile militants, five jailed for the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister, one for weapons smuggling, were in Israeli custody. The prison is in ruins, and some Palestinians say so is the credibility, prestige and power of President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazin.

MOHAMMAD YAGI: With what happened in Jericho Mazin became more weaker than ever.

WESTERVELT: Palestinian political analyst Mohammad Yagi argues that Abbas built his reputation on a foundation of respect and stature within the international community. Now, Yagi says, that foundation is crumbling anew, as many Palestinians believe the West abandoned Abbas and colluded with Israel on the Jericho raid.

YAGI: Right now with a weaker position than before, I think he might be thinking of resignation.

WESTERVELT: A group of activists in Abbas' own Fatah movement hopes so. In an open letter they called for the entire Abbas-led Palestinian Authority to abolish itself. They wrote, If the Palestinian authority can't protect its own prisoners, it might as well be dismantled. Speaking last night on Al Arabia TV, Palestinian authority Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa said there's a possibility the authority will dismantle itself because of the pressures after the Jericho incident, end quote.

Hafez Bargutti thinks that's a good idea. The editor of the influential Palestinian Authority-funded daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida says the Palestinian authority was founded on agreements that Israel and the West no longer seem to honor or support. The Jericho fiasco, he says, should prompt Palestinians to revitalize the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the Authority, as the main vehicle to achieve a viable state.

HAFEZ BARGUTTI: If the Authority has no power on the ground, why the Authority will exist?

WESTERVELT: During a tour of the prison ruins, Abbas called the Israeli incursion an unforgivable crime. Abbas suggested the West conspired with Israeli forces and gave the green light to break a deal under which U.S. and U.K. personnel monitored the high profile prisoners. Israeli officials deny that, saying they had to act lest Abbas and Hamas followed through on hints the militants would be freed.

Even before the Jericho raid, Abbas was struggling to negotiate and work with Hamas as it forms a new cabinet. Abbas' Fatah Party today ruled out joining in a coalition with the Islamists. But Abbas keeps pressing them to reject violence and recognize signed accords with Israel. Now, Fatah and Abbas will have an even harder time building a working relationship with Hamas, says newly elected Hamas Parliamentarian Abdul Jabbar Fukahar(ph).

ABUL JABBAR FUKAHAR: (Through Translator) They have preached negotiations and agreements and have pressured us to accept agreements. We address them and tell them, how do you expect us to respect signed agreements when Israel, your partner, has breached every agreement?

WESTERVELT: Abbas met with the American Consul General Thursday. According to a Palestinian source, Abbas expressed frustration at the incursion and tried to mend relations with the U.S. that were clearly strained by the raid. But with the Palestinian public, the damage may already by done.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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