Given the turbulent political climate, one wonders whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has any regrets and, if so, if he would gladly roll back time a decade. In 2008, the PA boss was firmly entrenched in Ramallah despite a year earlier having been unceremoniously—that is, violently—ejected by Hamas from Gaza in an internecine war. Nevertheless, the world was seemingly at Abbas’ doorstep, his Muqata compound the address where kings, heads of state and a never-ending parade of diplomats flocked to with a view to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, considered at the time by many as the central malaise plaguing the Middle East.
It was within this context that then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a fully comprehensive peace deal that would have created a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with only minor land swaps, and with east Jerusalem as its capital. A limited number of Palestinian refugees would have been allowed to “return” to Israel. But when Olmert, after a score of meetings, urged Abbas to sign on the dotted line, the PA leader said he needed to consult with other officials but never got back to the Israeli premier.
Sometime later, Abbas was the first of his colleagues to receive a phone call from newly-inaugurated US President Barack Obama, who vowed to put “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem. This manifested in pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement an unprecedented ten-month construction freeze in Jewish communities located in the West Bank. But Abbas still refused to negotiate for the first nine months of the building suspension and, when he finally did, demanded that the policy be renewed indefinitely. It was an untenable political situation for Netanyahu precluding the possibility of talks getting off the ground.
This pattern repeated itself during Obama’s second term, when a new initiative, spearheaded by then-secretary of state John Kerry, forced Netanyahu to release, in four tranches, more than 100 terrorists from Israeli jails. But once again Abbas found a pretext to walk away from the peace process.
By then, the Middle East had descended into total chaos in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, while Shiite Iran was flexing its muscles throughout the region. The outbreak of wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond had little to do with Israel or solving Palestinian “problem,” effectively marginalizing the conflict.
This confluence of events, in turn, stimulated a rapprochement between Sunni Muslim nations and the Jewish state, which share a desire both to curb Tehran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization and counter the threat posed by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. As the geopolitical situation slowly changed, countries that previously supported the Palestinians unconditionally no longer viewed matters in shades of black and white, but, rather, increasingly in blue and white; this, prompted by a growing acknowledgment that Israel, as opposed to the PA, has much to offer to regime’s that likewise view the Islamic Republic as an existential threat.
Enter US President Donald Trump, who is perhaps the least ideological—and unpredictable—American leader in history. While his White House has invested political capital into jump-starting the peace process, President Trump is not beholden to any preconceived notions nor does he appear willing to pander to Palestinian sensibilities. This was made stark by his recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to which the Palestinians reacted with unhinged fury.
Instead of accepting the new playing field and adapting, the PA adopted a scorched-earth policy, effectively boycotting Washington and threatening to withdraw recognition of Israel, thereby abrogating the Oslo Accords. This, notwithstanding the apparent tacit acceptance by Arab states of President Trump‘s Jerusalem declaration, and while the US Congress moves to cut off aid to the PA over its “pay-for-slay” policy of disbursing salaries to Palestinian prisoners.
Domestically, the situation is not much better, with a recent survey showing that some seventy percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. Under his rule, the PA has lost legitimacy within the eyes of its people, who near-uniformly view the leadership as a corrupt kleptocracy unable to advance their interests. Specifically, the West Bank economy is completely underdeveloped and the territory lacks almost all of the basic infrastructure of a functioning state despite the tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid that have flooded into the PA’s coffers. Moreover, the Palestinians remain divided between the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, with the latest attempts to forge national unity, like those before them, having thus far amounted to nothing.
According to Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilead, formerly the director of policy and political-military affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the PA leader does not believe that his positions are being adequately considered, leading to increased inflexibility as his days become numbered. “This may be the last call, as Abbas is very old and has said he may not be here next year. So it looks like there is no hope for the peace process.
“Abbas may not take any concrete steps moving forward,” Gilead expounded, “but he does not have to. He is telling us what his legacy will be. As such, Israel should reconsider its positions and try to find way to forge a peace agreement with him or it may need to abandon the process entirely. Nobody knows who or what will come after Abbas and whether they will have the legitimacy to deal with Israel. It is bad news that it appears as though he will be leaving no options for peace.”
Abbas has found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, and while European nations, along with Russia and China, may agree to step in and fill part of the vacuum left by the US, without the firm backing of Sunni countries, who are closely aligned with Washington, there appears little chance for the PA to secure a soft landing.
“Abbas appears to be desperate,” Dr. Anat Kurz, Director of Research at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former member of track-II Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, told The Media Line. “He is shooting in all directions and acting as if there is nothing to lose with the American administration or in terms of resuming talks with Israel. The Palestinians feel as though they have lost the ability to influence the course of developments,” she elaborated, “not only because it appears the international community is exhausted after years of failed efforts to forge a settlement, but also because of what has happened in the region, mainly the ongoing tensions between the Sunni Gulf monarchies and Shiite Iran.
“There are also the wars going on throughout the Middle East,” Kurz concluded, “which has lessened the importance of the Palestinian issue. Given all of these elements, Abbas does not know who to turn to or how to proceed.”
Another thorn in Abbas’ side is the Israeli government, which has gradually shifted to the right and contains many members who publicly oppose the two-state solution. The ramifications for Israel of the Palestinian leaderships’ precarious predicament will be numerous, especially if Abbas decides to throw in the towel and dissolve the PA, a move that effectively would shift the responsibility of supporting West Bank Palestinians onto Jerusalem.
In the short-term, this could necessitate deeper entrenchment of the Israeli army’s positioning in post-1967 areas in order to prevent the outbreak of total anarchy and, equally important, to ensure, in the absence of security coordination with the PA, that Hamas is unable to seize control of the West Bank. Over the long-term, the disintegration of the PA would require Israel to implement its own unilateral measures, perhaps including the annexation of Area C of the West Bank—as designated by the Oslo Accords with both Israeli administrative and security control.
With the walls closing in on Abbas, he doubled-down Sunday during a meeting of high-ranking Palestine Liberation Organization officials. In what many construed as a tirade, the PA boss went off on Washington, affirming, in reference to President Trump, “may God demolish your house,” before describing Israel as “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Jews.” Regarding the White House’s soon-to-be-unveiled peace plan, Abbas seemingly confirmed that Abu Dis, a suburb on the very outskirts of Jerusalem, will be offered as the capital of a future Palestinian state, evidencing the degree to which the political climate has evolved.
“We can say no to anyone and we have said no to Trump and others,” Abbas reportedly asserted, rejecting the US proposal out-of-hand and insinuating that various regional countries back the terms of the initiative. “The deal of the era is the slap of the era,” he concluded.
For many, the PA chief’s speech made stark that he is caught in a time warp, unable to escape the past by coming to terms with the fact that what is being proposed is, in reality, the deal of this era. In this respect, while Abbas may be in his golden years, it appears that the golden age of global acceptance of his maximalist demands are over.