World Focus: Without Abbas, does doomsday loom?

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When Western diplomats considered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's announcement that he did not want to stand for re-election yesterday, they must have asked themselves the famous question attributed to Metternich about the death of a rival, "What did he mean by that?"

An easy answer is, "Not very much". It isn't hard to see why Mr Abbas is fed up with pretty well everybody. With all of his latter years devoted to the search for a two-state solution in the Middle East, he has nothing to show for it thanks to what he sees as Israel's obduracy. Hamas has so far refused Egyptian terms for reconciliation with Fatah. The US pressed him into orginally withdrawing a UN resolution endorsing the Goldstone report, provoking a politicially life-threatening internal backlash. And Syria, which had ironically also urged him to withdraw the motion on the opposite grounds, that Goldstone criticised Hamas, then led the charge against him when he did so.

The final straw came with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words on the settlements. Clinton has hardly distinguished herself over the past week, but that she should have pressed Mr Abbas to enter negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu's government even though Israel had not met the demand she had orginally endorsed – a total settlement freeze – was especially dismaying for him.

But being fed up is not the same as walking off the job. Although elections have been fixed for 24 January, few expect them to be held then, given Hamas's refusal to sign a reconciliation agreement. And Mr Abbas could change his mind. Even if he were to stop being President, he could stay as chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the body actually responsible for negotiations with Israel. And his gambit may push the Americans into a tougher line with Israel.

But it is possible to be too sanguine. First, the doomsday scenarios – at least as Western governments see them – cannot be ruled out. What if Mr Abbas were shortly to decide, as one or two senior Palestinian officials have been muttering he might, to make a clean break and leave the Presidency in the hands of the Hamas parliamentary speaker, Aziz al Dweik?

Supposing Hamas suddenly decided to call Mr Abbas's bluff, and agreed to January elections. With Fatah divided over an alternative, or fielding a humiliated Mr Abbas, could they capture the presidency by popular vote?

Yet Mr Abbas's gamble is not empty of meaning. True, it makes it all the easier for Mr Netanyahu to claim that it is the Palestinians who are blocking talks. But Mr Abbas evidently thinks it no longer worth entering negotiations without being sure they are more than what his own Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has called a "process for the sake of a process". As an architect of the Oslo accords, who in the 1990s watched Mr Netanyahu oppose, then see off Oslo, Mr Abbas is clearly not inclined to trust the Israeli Prime Minister.

Washington is said to be quietly working on possible negotiating parameters but meeting resistance from Israel. Used to pressure from Israel, but much less so from the Palestinians, the US may be disinclined to harden its line in those discussions. Of course, there are Fatah alternatives to Mr Abbas, most enticingly the more charsimatic Marwan Barghouti who might be much better placed to sell a deal if and when one is struck. But Mr Barghouti is in jail; and there is little sign that the Netanyhau government is ready to free him to become its "partner."

The "terms of reference" for negotiations which Mr Abbas spelt out on Thursday are not ones the West can easily disagree with, and Washington would do well not be too dismissive of them. As the Israeli commentator Ben Caspit wrote yesterday in Maariv: "Anybody mocking Abu Mazen today will be missing him tomorrow."