Engulfed by domestic outrage, Palestinian 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 Abbas' own Fatah movement quickly distanced themselves, saying they had been taken by surprise.
In an attempt to deflect the anger, Abbas announced Sunday he would have a low-level committee look into the decision-making process. It was not clear whether Abbas himself would come under scrutiny.
The U.S. exerted pressure to win a deferral on the war crimes allegations, Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed, speaking on 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 Mideast 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 both 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 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 U.S., Abbas signaled that he prefers 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.
Several setbacks for Abbas
It was the third domestic setback for Abbas in less than two weeks.
Late last month, the Palestinian leader radiated weakness when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the urging of President Barack Obama. 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 U.S. pushing for a resumption of peace talks despite Israel's refusal to halt construction, 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 women 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, Abbas has failed to engineer a large-scale prisoner release in nearly five years in office.
With his latest domestic crisis over the U.N. war crimes report, Abbas may have underestimated the extent of the outrage. Many Palestinians viewed the report, written by respected justice Richard Goldstone, as a rare opportunity to hold Israel accountable for what they consider its harsh policies against them.
The report accused Israel of using disproportionate force and targeting civilians in Gaza. It faulted Hamas for firing rockets at Israeli towns. Israel launched its offensive to halt years of Hamas rocket fire.
Nearly 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed in the war, along with 13 Israelis.
Both sides denied committing war crimes.
‘Shameful and irresponsible’ decision
On Sunday, Hamas, whose forces routed those of Abbas' Fatah movement in a violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, lashed out at Abbas for his decision on the U.N. report.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the decision was "shameful and irresponsible" and "traffics in the blood of our women and children in Gaza."
But others also sharply criticized Abbas.
Ali Jarbawi, planning minister in Abbas' West Bank government, said he would seek an explanation when the Cabinet meets Monday.
"Someone made a mistake," he said. "There was a wrong decision, and this is terribly bad."
Leading members of the Palestine Liberation Organization said they were taken by surprise and called for an investigation.
In Syria, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was "astonished" by the Palestinian Authority's position which it said foiled international efforts to "take appropriate measures and implement the report's recommendations."
Five Syrian-based radical Palestinian factions called for those responsible for the decision to be put on trial.
Abbas responded Sunday by setting up a low-level committee to look into the chain of decision-making. A member of the panel, former legislator Azmi Shuaibi, said the group would talk to Abbas, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.N. and other officials.
However, it appears unlikely the investigation would target Abbas.
Abbas' aides have defended the decision to defer the vote on the Goldstone report, saying Palestinian diplomats needed more time to win international support for the document. They insisted the report wasn't being shelved.
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