Abbas on the ropes as Palestinians vent anger

RAMALLAH, West Bank Wed Oct 7, 2009 1:40pm EDT

1 of 3. A Palestinian poses for the media as he throws a shoe at a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City October 7, 2009. The poster reads in Arabic 'To the garbage of history, you traitor, Mahmoud Abbas'.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Salem

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Abbas faced a wave of anger on Wednesday from Palestinians who accuse him of selling out the national cause in favor of Israel under political pressure from the United States.

As frustrations with his perceived weakness boiled over, aides conceded Abbas, 74, was on the defensive. They said he would address the nation, but did not say when.

Two days before he was to receive President Barack Obama's shuttling peace envoy, George Mitchell, the leader Obama relies on to seal a treaty with Israel looked increasingly vulnerable.

In Gaza, an angry crowd threw shoes at his poster and called him a traitor who belonged "in the garbage can of history." Some critics said he was out of touch and should quit.

"It's not just the Gaza street. It's also the West Bank street," said Sami Alkam, a doctor in the West Bank city of Hebron, where support for Abbas is weak.

Never as popular as his late predecessor Yasser Arafat, Abbas has been under a political cloud since September 22 when he reluctantly acceded to Obama's request to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York.

There was dismay at home when Palestinians realized that Obama had backtracked from demand that Israel halt all settlement activity in occupied Palestinian land, and that Abbas made no public protest.

New York was seen as a humiliation for the Palestinians, and at the weekend Abbas's future grew darker still when people learned he had agreed at Geneva to delay action on a United Nations report alleging Israeli war crimes in Gaza last January.

"The Palestinian Authority has committed a mistake," said Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo of the Geneva decision. "We admit it. It can be corrected. We are working on that."

"The decision to postpone was based on false information," he said, referring to the delay the Palestinians agreed to at the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. "The president will take action to correct that."

"HUGE" DAMAGE

The gathering fallout appeared to take Abbas and his Fatah movement by surprise.

Officials said Abbas in his planned broadcast would explain what happened at the Geneva Human Rights Council meeting and what went wrong. But the president was currently in Rome and Palestinians would have to wait a day at least to hear him.

"There is a campaign to politically assassinate the president," said an official who declined to be named.

"The political consequences for Abbas are huge. We'll need a lot of time to repair the damage," he added. The president would probably begin by firing "those who gave him inaccurate information."

The Geneva decision by the Palestinian Authority helped defer a vote that would have condemned Israel's non-cooperation with a war crimes investigation led by Richard Goldstone, and would also have sent his report to the Security Council.

The inquiry accused Israel and the Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza of committing war crimes in the Dec 27-Jan 18 conflict.

Israel had warned that the U.N. would deal a "fatal blow" to peace hopes if it endorsed Goldstone's report, and the United States said its postponement would help re-launch negotiations between Abbas and Israel, suspended since last November.

The diplomatic nuances were lost on many Palestinians, who saw the decision to shelve the report as a craven surrender by Abbas to pressure from Washington. Some even alleged darkly that their president did it for personal benefit.

"Abbas is a spent force ... a tragic shell of a man, hollow, politically impotent, backed and respected by nobody, wrote Palestinian-born commentator Rami Khouri in Beirut's Daily Star.

"Mahmoud Abbas has failed his people, but he can partially redeem himself and set the stage for his successor to play a more effective role. He should act with honor and confidence by stepping down as Palestinian president."

Abbas backers, however, were promising to fight back, beginning with a march by supporters in Ramallah on Thursday.

The firestorm over the Goldstone report coincides with rising tensions with Israel over East Jerusalem. There have been clashes over alleged efforts by religious Jews to violate the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines.

The row could also scupper hopes that Fatah and Hamas will finally conclude a "reconciliation" agreement at a ceremony later this month in Egypt which has been mediated to end the Palestinian split for over a year.

"We in Fatah have admitted that postponing the vote was a mistake," said Mohammad Dahlan, one of the younger generation of Palestinians aspiring to the top job in the dominant party.

He said Fatah's Islamist rivals Hamas, from their Gaza Strip stronghold, were cynically "exploiting the Goldstone report as a way to destroy the Palestinian political system."

(Reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Reuters Television in West Bank and Gaza Strip; editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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