- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank | Engulfed by domestic outrage, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rushed Sunday to limit the fallout from his decision to suspend efforts to have Israeli officials prosecuted for war crimes over last winter’s military offensive in Gaza.

The decision set off a wave of condemnation, not just from his Islamic militant Hamas rivals, but also Palestinian human rights groups, intellectuals and commentators. Leading members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and even Mr. Abbas’ own Fatah movement quickly distanced themselves, saying they had been taken by surprise.

In an attempt to deflect the anger, Mr. Abbas announced Sunday that he would have a low-level committee look into the decision-making process. It was not clear whether Mr. Abbas would come under scrutiny.

The United States exerted pressure to win a deferral on the war crimes allegations, Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the content of closed-door meetings. The goal appeared to be to keep the hope of renewed Middle East negotiations alive.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last week that pursuing the war crimes charges would deal a deadly blow to efforts to restart peace talks.

At issue is the fate of a U.N. report that accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers in December and January. Late last week, the U.N. Human Rights Council considered a resolution to send the report to the U.N. General Assembly for possible action. Instead, Palestinian diplomats said Friday that they would agree to delay the vote until March. With the Palestinians out of the picture, Arab and Muslim states did not take the case further.

In going along with the United States, Mr. Abbas signaled that he preferred to protect his strong ties with the Obama administration - and the implied promise of U.S. help in getting the Palestinians a state - even at the cost of losing respect at home.

It was the third domestic setback for Mr. Abbas in less than two weeks.

Late last month, the Palestinian leader radiated weakness when he met with Mr. Netanyahu at the urging of President Obama. Mr. Abbas agreed to the meeting even though he repeatedly said there’s nothing to discuss until Israel freezes settlement construction in the West Bank.

With the United States pushing for a resumption of peace talks despite Israel’s refusal to halt construction, Mr. Abbas may soon find himself having to choose between defying Washington and the public humiliation of returning to talks on terms he’s often called unacceptable.

Last week, rival Hamas scored a triumph with the release of 20 Palestinian female prisoners by Israel in exchange for a videotaped sign of life from a captured Israeli soldier. It was seen as a step toward a swap of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the soldier - a major Israeli concession to Hamas.

In contrast, Mr. Abbas has failed to engineer a large-scale prisoner release in nearly five years in office.

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