Will the Palestinian leader seize the moment and make one last push for peace?
Entering the thirteenth year of his four-year term, octogenarian Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is seemingly at a crossroads. Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the PA is, for now, effectively boycotting Washington, thereby throwing a wrench into efforts to jump-start peace talks. Internally, Abbas continues to rule over a divided people separated between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the recently-signed unity deal between his Fatah faction and Hamas having failed to materialize. Moreover, even as the local economy flounders the PA is widely viewed as being kleptocratic, a recent survey showing upwards of 70 percent of Palestinians wanting Abbas to resign.
These issues are exacerbated by changing regional dynamics that many believe have greatly reduced the prospect of Palestinian statehood, Abbas’ ostensible raison d’être. The chaos engulfing Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond has pushed the Palestinian issue to the backburner, while bringing into stark focus the intensifying confrontation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, the central conflict in Middle East.
This, in turn, has affected the way countries in the region are beginning to perceive Israel: that is, no longer exclusively as an adversary or pariah, but, rather, as a bulwark against Tehran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization. In this regard, Jerusalem has repeatedly hinted at a rapprochement with Sunni nations that has the potential to greatly increase the Jewish state’s standing with, and thus leverage with, the Muslim world.
In parallel, there has been a major shift to the political right among Israelis, a large portion of whom has become disillusioned with the peace process due to years without results and no end to Palestinian terrorism. This has translated into an Israeli government with little appetite for making far-reaching territorial concessions to the PA, which it views as a purveyor of incitement that has indoctrinated a generation of Palestinians to oppose co-existence.
In response, Abbas appears to have reverted to his default position: namely, encouraging popular protests that generally manifest in violent, albeit containable, riots and issuing threats to “internationalize” the conflict by joining global organizations—including the International Criminal Court, where he threatens to bring charges of war crimes against Israelis. This, while seeking further symbolic declarations at the United Nations in support of “Palestine.”
Most recently, Abbas initiated a campaign to have Washington replaced by a new “honest broker” for the peace process, with no shortage of wannabe interlocutors answering the call. European countries, China and Russia formed a line, with Japan now taking the plunge with an invitation to Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to come to Tokyo for a peace conference.
Israel, however, wasted no time in pouring cold water on the notion of any diplomatic initiative that excludes the U.S. as a central player. Yet, the entire matter may be moot, as political realities presently make forging an end-of-conflict agreement extremely unlikely. The adage that the maximum Israel can offer exceeds the minimum the Palestinians could accept, and vice versa, rings true even for the most optimistic of analysts.
As such, Abbas finds himself in a precarious position, with no immediate prospects for Palestinian independence, having alienated the White House while apparently losing the unconditional support of regional Sunni countries. He appears unable to unify his people given the deep divisions with Hamas which remains unwilling to cede security control over Gaza; and faces a major reduction in American aid due to Congress’ passage of the Taylor Force Act, which will freeze $300 million unless the PA ceases to pay stipends to Palestinians jailed for violent assaults on Israelis and to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks.
“Of course, Abu Mazen [Abbas] is at an impasse and he needs to decide what comes next,” former Palestinian Authority information minister Nabil Amro told The Media Line. “I think he will set new conditions for resuming diplomatic relations with the United States, as the old situation will not remain. The PA,” he continued, “along with countries that supported it at the UN by voting against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, will together decide on new rules for the [peace process]. Abbas is very concerned about the situation but is committed to finding solutions.”
Like all leaders in the twilight of their tenures, Abbas is no doubt taking stock, keenly aware that his next move will go a long way towards defining his legacy. Might he follow in the path of his predecessor Yassir Arafat and launch a third Intifada? Or could he instead bite the bullet and take the necessary steps to mend fences with President Trump and make a final push for statehood?
According to Gilead Sher, former chief of staff to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and a senior negotiator at the Camp David Summit in 2000, Abbas is unlikely to sponsor another Palestinian uprising but will instead reengage in some form of diplomacy, whether bilaterally with Israel or within a broader regional framework. “[Even though] I do not believe that Abbas is capable of making the concessions necessary for a final deal, I expect him to be a partner in a long-term, transitional, interim process that eventually leads the parties to a two-state reality, as he knows this is the only option to achieving tangible statehood,” he told The Media Line.
“In 2008,” Sher continued, “after 30-odd meetings with then-Israeli premier Ehud Olmert, Abbas’ response to a peace proposal was ‘I’ll get back to you,’ but he never did. This was the most advanced offer ever by an Israeli leader. Then, in 2013-14 he ended the Kerry process by reconciling with Hamas and leaving the negotiations. Thereafter, Abbas started a very public global campaign to demonize Israel in international forums.”
In this respect, some Palestinians are pushing the PA boss to ditch the peace process altogether. “There is a unique opportunity for Abbas to exploit the situation in order to alter his conventional policy and replace it with a ‘knock on every door’ policy to further strengthen his internationalization efforts of the Palestinian cause,” one Palestinian political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Media Line.
Nevertheless, he emphasized, “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is the last Palestinian leader who is capable of signing a peace deal with the Israeli side. Without him, a just peace would ultimately be unattainable.”
Abbas is presumed to be weighing all of the facts as he mulls how to proceed, but many believe that with Father Time no longer on his side he may very well choose as his swan song whatever strategy he deems will have the most enduring impact, for better or for worse.
“Personally, I sympathize with Abbas,” Sher concluded, “as I give him a lot of credit for his contribution to creating a more moderate approach towards reaching an eventual historic understanding with Israel. However, this does not change my analytical perspective: namely, that he was not capable of carrying the torch of Palestinian self-determination towards a better future.
“Regrettably, his legacy will not be one of a strong and important leader.”