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Palestine is paying the price for peace

The west must realise that weakening the Palestinian secular side plays into the hands of Hamas

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Barack Obama's approach to peacemaking in the Middle East has so far been a success - if the aim was to weaken the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Mahmoud Abbas. As Israeli and Palestinian delegations tour Washington, Obama receives international recognition for his efforts and Israel's leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, has stabilised his centre-right coalition. Abbas is left out in the cold, and a poll this month showed that his people's confidence in him has fallen from 17.8 per cent in June to 12.1 per cent.

The PA has made serious attempts to establish itself as a reliable partner for peace. In August, Abbas (with Tel Aviv's silent co-operation) responded to US overtures by convening the first Fatah convention in 20 years, renewing the party leadership, neutralising radicals from abroad and backing negotiations with Israel. At the same time, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has tackled corruption and nepotism, rejected the rhetoric of military liberation and, with US support, improved security in the West Bank. For the first time in Palestinian history, Fayyad has also elaborated on a detailed, two-year road map for state-building.

In September, Abbas set aside preconditions and publicly met with Obama and Netanyahu in New York. His handshake with the man who favours "economic peace" came at a high price in Palestinian public opinion. The price became even steeper early this month, when Abbas agreed to hold back the UN Human Rights Council's Goldstone report. This accuses Israel and Hamas of grave human rights violations. His decision led to fury in the Palestinian streets, forcing him to allow the report to be discussed after all.

What has Abbas got in return for his efforts to co-operate? Obama's call for final-status negotiations, to the sound of the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements. On 16 October, the Israeli organisation Peace Now reported new construction in 34 locations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The prospect of a solution fades with Abbas's standing in the territories. The west needs to understand that weakening the Palestinian secular camp plays into the hands of more uncompromising forces.

Ghassan Khatib is a former PA minister. Michael Bröning works at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation

This article appears in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London