Monday, January 23, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A kaleidoscope of campaign banners floats above traffic-choked el-Manara Square: Images of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat smile against the background of Jerusalem, while jailed militant Marwan Barghouti waves his shackled hands in defiance of Israel.

But nowhere to be seen is the likeness of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

With his Fatah Party dangerously close to losing Wednesday’s parliamentary elections to the Islamic militants of Hamas, the Palestinian moderate has taken a surprisingly low profile in a contest that many see as a referendum on his tenure.

Aides say election laws forbid campaigning by the president, who is not up for re-election. But others say Palestinians are so disappointed with Mr. Abbas that he would only hurt his party.

“He represents an image that can be harmful to the campaign,” said Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.

“On a popular level, people do not see him really as someone whom they can trust to deliver because they’ve given him a full year to deliver, and he didn’t. There’s an ironic thing: Here the Palestinian public and the Israeli government meet.”

Mr. Abbas was elected in January 2005 with 62 percent of the vote, buoying hopes that he would be able to rein in Palestinian gunmen and resume peace talks with Israel. But he has achieved neither.

With the political party bequeathed to him by Mr. Arafat disintegrating, Mr. Abbas’ authority is being widely questioned. If Fatah performs poorly on Wednesday, he will be seen as a lame-duck president with no mandate to lead.

Mr. Abbas “will be in bad shape if Fatah gets less than what is expected or loses the majority,” said Mohammed Yaghi, a columnist for the Al-Ayyam newspaper. “Hamas will haggle with him on everything.”

The president backed these elections in hopes that, with Hamas as a part of the Palestinian parliament, he could exert more leverage over the Islamist militants. But Fatah members now are questioning the wisdom of that strategy.

“Many are skeptical that he is really for Fatah,” Mr. Yaghi said. “Many are saying that he doesn’t care, that he only has a [diplomatic] program and that is his main concern.”

There are other signs of disarray. Gangs from Fatah’s military wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, have threatened to disrupt voting because their patrons are not on the ballot. And Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia embarrassed the president this month by suggesting the vote be delayed.

The implosion of Fatah is one of the main reasons why Hamas is poised to do much better than anyone expected a few months ago. According to a Birzeit University survey last week, Fatah’s popularity stands at 35 percent, while Hamas’ has surged to 31 percent.

The pressure is starting to show on Mr. Abbas, who is seldom pictured smiling in Palestinian newspapers these days and has offered to step down if he cannot carry out his agenda.

There is still some sympathy for Mr. Abbas in the streets of Ramallah, where he is perceived as an honest politician. “You can tell he is a good person, and he gave it his best shot,” said Nasser Ibrahim, a lifelong Fatah supporter who will not vote for the party this year.

But Mr. Abbas’ colleagues in Fatah aren’t likely to be forgiving if the party performs poorly on Wednesday, enhancing his reputation as a weak leader, said Mr. Ezbidi, the professor at Birzeit University.

“Such an image will continue to exist for some time,” he said. “I do not see Mahmoud Abbas part of the political scene eight months from now. I see him disappearing somehow and resigning.”

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