US reaches out to Palestinian leaders many angrily reject

JERUSALEM — After weeks of unrest and a devastating 11-day war in Gaza, the U.S. and the international community plan to engage with the Palestinians to revive peace efforts.

But when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits on Tuesday, he will meet with Palestinian leaders who were sidelined by the protests and outmaneuvered by the militant Hamas group — and who seem to be more despised by Palestinians than at any time in their long reign.

The Palestinian Authority is no closer to statehood than it was when Mahmoud Abbas, now 85, was elected president in 2005 after the death of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinians are far more deeply divided. Abbas called off the first elections in 15 years last month, when it looked like his splintering Fatah party would suffer an embarrassing defeat.

However, the PA maintains close security ties with Israel and is deeply invested in the idea of a two-state solution. Internationally, that’s seen as the only way to resolve the conflict, even though there have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade.

The Islamic militant group Hamas won a landslide victory in the last elections in 2006 and was poised to do well again. But it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and is blacklisted as a terrorist organization. The protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere are mostly leaderless.

“The option is either to engage with Hamas or an incredibly unrepresentative and defunct governing — somewhat of a governing — authority that holds absolutely no legitimacy,” said Tahani Mustafa, an analyst at the Crisis Group, an international think tank.

Israel and the U.S. appear to be taking the second route, with officials in both countries saying they hope to strengthen the PA at the expense of Hamas, something that has been tried and failed repeatedly since Hamas seized power in Gaza from Abbas’ forces in 2007.

Many Palestinians have come to see the PA as part of an entrenched and increasingly unbearable system of Israeli domination that extends far beyond the occupied West Bank, where the PA administers major population centers under overarching Israeli control.

Their anger boiled over last month with protests and clashes in Jerusalem that eventually spread across the region, drawing in Palestinian citizens of Israel and triggering the Gaza war.

It was on vivid display at Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the combustible holy site at the heart of the recent unrest, when thousands of Palestinian worshippers chanted “Dogs of the authority, get out!” in response to a sermon from a PA-appointed mufti.

That was in sharp contrast to raucous rallies held at Al-Aqsa and elsewhere in support of Hamas and Mohammed Deif, the shadowy commander of the group’s armed wing.

Unlike the PA, which released sternly-worded statements against Israel’s policing of Al-Aqsa and attempts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of families from a nearby neighborhood, Deif issued an ultimatum. When time ran out, Hamas fired long-range rockets that disrupted an Israeli parade celebrating its claims to the city.

That triggered a devastating Gaza war that killed more than 250 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished territory.

But it also allowed Hamas to portray itself as a wily defender of Jerusalem, to which both sides in the Middle East conflict have deeply emotional ties, and to say it had struck a blow against the far more powerful Israel.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, says that even there support for Hamas has risen amid widespread disappointment with the PA.

“At the end of the day, it’s Israel that destroyed these buildings,” he said. “We suffer because of Israeli occupation, we suffer because of Israeli oppression… The Palestinians are not going to blame Hamas.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a former senior Palestinian official and veteran of the peace process who broke with the Palestinian leadership last year, partly blames Israel for the downfall of the PA, saying it “sabotaged” attempts at a two-state solution, including by expanding settlements.

“The more this happened, the more (Palestinian leaders) were seen as helpless before Israeli violations,” she said. “Israel proceeded with full impunity to make life more and more miserable for Palestinians.”

Israel says it made various proposals over the years for a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories it seized in the 1967 war — that were rejected. The Palestinians, negotiating from a position of weakness, said the offers did not go far enough.

Khalil Shikaki, a respected pollster who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades, said Hamas’ popularity normally rises during periods of confrontation only to return to normal when things settle down. But he says the PA’s crisis of legitimacy is real.

“This last war between Israel and Hamas has shown that the emperor is truly naked,” he said.

Hamas was able to argue that it defended Jerusalem when no one else — neither Abbas, nor Arab countries, nor the international community — was willing to do anything, Shikaki said.

“This narrative is absolutely fantastic in terms of its effectiveness, and Hamas got away with it because Abbas has zero credibility among Palestinians,” he said.

That won’t keep Abbas from welcoming Blinken to the presidential palace in Ramallah this week as the leader of the Palestinians, even though he administers less than 40% of the West Bank and his presidential mandate expired more than a decade ago. His forces have no presence in Gaza, and with the elections cancelled, are unlikely to return anytime soon.

For that reason, it’s widely expected that any rebuilding money will go through the U.N. and Qatar. They were already funneling aid to Gaza and carrying out humanitarian projects there as part of informal cease-fires between Israel and Hamas — the only meaningful Israeli-Palestinian agreements reached in recent memory.

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Follow Joseph Krauss on Twitter at www.twitter.com/josephkrauss.

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