Sometimes, political leaders collapse without warning at the most inconvenient times for world powers. This is not the case of the 74-year old chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). For two years, the Middle East has watched his influence wane among his own people and even within his Fatah movement. The Arab world has known he is a spent force since the rival Islamist Palestinian Hamas overthrew Palestinian Authority rule in the Gaza Strip in June 2007 with scarcely a shot.
Abu Mazen has not been able to heal the rift which has split the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and West Bank into two separate entities.
His regime in Ramallah has been shored up by various US and European governments for their own reasons and because he is the only Palestinian negotiating partner in sight. The Bush administration began and its successor continues to pump a billion dollars a year into special security brigades for bolstering his regime. This revenue generated an artificial GDP growth rate of 8 percent, comparable to China, with hardly a dime invested in economic infrastructure.
Slices of this assistance end up in the pockets of his cronies and supporters. The deep corruption in the Ramallah government stokes the Palestinian street's antagonism toward Abu Mazen and his reputation as an American puppet.
Even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, his only backers, recently cooled. Both now insist the Fatah leader come to terms with Hamas, even if it means accepting Hamas rule of the Gaza Strip, agreeing to a national unity government in which it holds majority control, and a Hamas prime minister.
Abu Mazen has been told he must stop resisting a general election in June 2010 to fill his post as PA chairman and vote for a new Palestinian parliament. He has held back, knowing his Fatah would probably lose.
Burned out in Ramallah, challenged by Jerusalem unrest
Yet despite his vanishing credibility, Abbas remains the linchpin of US president Barack Obama's Middle East policy. While Abbas stood beside him and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in New York on Sept. 22, for a summit supposed to have ushered in resumed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, there is no chance of them taking off. For, despite US envoy George Mitchell's best efforts, the Palestinian leader will not play. He knows that bowing to Washington and sitting down with Israeli leaders would further weaken his shaky standing as long as Israel continues to expand settlements on the West Bank and Jerusalem. And he believes intransigence will serve him better than feeble surrender.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report that so busy were Washington, Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah trying to soften Abu Mazen up that they missed the run-up to a major flare-up in combustible Jerusalem which erupted Sunday, Oct. 4. Iran and Syria, which orchestrated the outbreaks aimed to show up Mahmoud Abbas' inadequacies and pre-empt a possible power-sharing accord which the Saudis and Egyptians have been urging on Hamas and Fatah.
Israeli intelligence and the American advisers working with Palestinian security services were therefore caught short when Muslim youths started rioting and hurling rock and bottles on Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, in the heart of Jerusalem.
They were still more dismayed that Hamas had managed to enlist Israeli Arab citizens, followers of the radical Islamic movement, to spearhead the unrest and attack Israeli security personnel for the first time since Yasser Arafat's day.
Abu Mazen yields Goldstone ace, branded as traitor
Their leaders accused Israel of deliberately digging under al Aqsa mosque to shatter Islam's third holiest site and rebuild the Jewish temple in its place. “The Jews” had planted archeological artifacts there as false evidence of a fictitious ancient temple to prove the Jews own religious rights on Temple Mount.
Also unpredicted was the damaging fallout from the report compiled by former judge Richard Goldstone on the war crimes committed in Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last January. Both sides stood accused, but the emphasis was placed on Israel's alleged guilt, providing many hands with a club for hitting the Jewish state and knocking another nail in Abu Mazen's coffin.
He played into his detractors hands by following US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's advice to withdraw a Palestinian Authority motion for the UN Human Rights Commission, which commissioned the Goldstone Report, to refer it to the Security Council without delay, and accepted a six-month postponement.
So furiously was he lambasted, the charges ranging from a sellout to treason, that his own Fatah ministers were forced to apologize and throw their support behind the rioting extremists in Jerusalem to salvage some credibility.
Abbas himself was away on one of his endless foreign trips.
At the time of writing this, the outbreaks are in their fifth day. If the pot is allowed to boil over, Israel might find itself in the grip of its third Palestinian uprising (intifada) nine years after Yasser Arafat loosed his suicide killers on its towns and villages.
It was against this backdrop that George Mitchell arrived Wednesday, Oct. 7 for another effort to turn the tide. He will find Israel one level short of top alert nationwide in the expectation of Islamic Arab and Palestinian violence peaking on Oct. 9 around Friday prayers at the mosques. Mitchell and Hillary Clinton are to submit a progress report on his mission to President Obama in mid-October. It won't be an easy document to write.