RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — In five turbulent years in office, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has never faced as much outrage as over his decision to suspend efforts to get Israeli officials put on trial for war crimes in Gaza.
On Wednesday, Gaza professors threw shoes at his defaced image and West Bank commentators called for his resignation, the latest signs Abbas may have miscalculated in bowing to what Palestinian officials say was intense U.S. pressure.
Abbas is unlikely to be forced out of office because he enjoys strong Western support and has ruled the West Bank without challenge since his Islamic militant Hamas rivals drove him out of Gaza in 2007.
However, the scandal could cause lasting harm to the 74-year-old Palestinian leader's standing with voters and his ability to negotiate with Israel.
In the short term, the U.S. is pushing for a quick resumption of Mideast peace talks, but gaps remain wide on what it takes to get back to the table. A weakened Abbas may not be in a position to make concessions when President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, returns to the region this week.
"This is the worst position that Abbas has found himself in since he was elected president," said Hani al-Masri, a West Bank commentator.
At the center of the uproar is a 575-page U.N. report about Israel's three-week war in Gaza last winter, which alleges that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes, something both sides deny.
Last week, Abbas withdrew Palestinian support for a vote in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to have the report sent to the U.N. General Assembly for possible action — the first of many steps toward possibly establishing war crimes tribunals. With the Palestinians out of the picture, the council set the report aside for six months.
Abbas made the decision under heavy U.S. pressure, Palestinian and Israeli officials have said. U.S. officials told Palestinian leaders that a war crimes debate would complicate efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to participants in the meetings.
The anger over Abbas' decision was intense because many Palestinians felt he chose not to pursue a rare opportunity to win justice for Gaza's war victims, said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian legislator.
"Finally, there was a moment, in front of the international community, to hold Israel accountable," Barghouti said. "What he (Abbas) did, or his government did, it's now perceived that they gave Israel the leeway to escape from that."
Nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the war, including hundreds of civilians, along with 13 Israelis. Israel launched the war to end years of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns.
Abbas has been away for most of the crisis, visiting Jordan, Yemen and Italy, and is only to return to the West Bank later this week. His aides initially defended the decision, saying a deferral did not mean the report was being buried, only that Palestinian diplomats needed more time to win international support for it.
However, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Abbas adviser, said Wednesday that the Palestinian leadership had erred, the first such acknowledgment after six days of escalating protests.
"What happened is a mistake, but (it) can be repaired," Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told the Voice of Palestine radio in a taped statement. "We have the courage to admit there was a mistake."
In New York, the U.N. Security Council was to meet Wednesday to discuss a letter from Libya, the only Arab member on the 15-nation panel, seeking an emergency meeting on the report, which was written by South African Judge Richard Goldstone.
The Palestinian U.N. Mission said it supports the Libyan request. However, a diplomat with ties to the Security Council indicated the Libyans took the lead from the start and did not act as stand-ins for the Palestinians, who were only updated shortly before the request was submitted.
Any attempt to get a statement or resolution seeking Security Council action on the report would likely face U.S. opposition. The U.S., Israel's closest ally, has said the report is unfair to Israel and has repeatedly said it should be dealt with in the Human Rights Council.
Regardless of what action the U.N. might take, Abbas' reputation has already suffered a bad blow. His critics included not only Hamas foes, but academics and human rights activists.
Zakaria Mohammed, a widely read West Bank-based commentator, wrote in his Web column that Abbas must resign immediately.
"It's over. Everything was burned. The president should leave. It's not possible anymore for him to stay," wrote Mohammed, who has criticized Abbas in the past, but never this harshly.
"If he stays he will be a dead body, with his smell hovering over our heads," the column said.
Several smaller PLO factions in Gaza demanded that Abbas cede the authority to decide alone on key issues. Abbas' actions on the Goldstone report reflect "continued unilateralism in decision-making and disregard of the national leadership," the factions said in a statement.
There have been no recent polls assessing support for Abbas. However a poll on Sept. 24, before he suspended action on the Goldstone report, showed the Palestinian president with a 55 percent approval rating compared to 32 percent for Gaza's Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
The poll, by the independent International Peace Institute, questioned 1,000 Palestinians and had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Hamas has pounced on the opportunity to discredit Abbas.
In Gaza, hundreds of anti-Abbas posters were plastered on walls Wednesday. One showed a photo of Abbas with a black X across his face and the words: "To the trash heap of history, you traitor, Mahmoud Abbas."
The posters were signed "university professors and intellectuals." However, the campaign would at least have required Hamas' tacit backing, if not outright involvement. The Islamic militants tightly control Gaza.
Later, about 30 professors and other protesters concluded a news conference condemning Abbas by hurling shoes the poster. Throwing a shoe at someone is considered a severe insult in Arab culture.
Taher Nunu, the Hamas government spokesman, warned Wednesday that the controversy could have "damaging effects" on Palestinian reconciliation talks, set to resume in Cairo later this month.
"What happened is a crime against the Palestinian people, a crime against the war's victims. It is a decision that can only be called a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs," Nunu said.
Associated Press reporters Mohammed Daraghmeh and Ben Hubbard in Ramallah, Rizek Abdel Jawad in Gaza City and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.