Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 March 2018

Abbas claims the initiative and forces the US to step up

The UN address is long on accusations and short on a clear strategy for moving forward. But what Mr Abbas did do was push the question – "where do we go from here?" – firmly into the hands of the US, writes Hussein Ibish

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26. Richard Drew / AP Photo
Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26. Richard Drew / AP Photo

In the very first sentence of his address to the United Nations General Assembly last Friday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of launching “a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people”, referring to the conflict this summer in Gaza. He proceeded to level virtually every charge in the Palestinian bill of particulars against Israel.

This was a highly significant departure from Mr Abbas’s usual tone, which typically stresses the Palestinian commitment to peace, contrasted with indefensible Israeli policies. But now he refers to the “impossibility” that the existing process can produce a meaningful breakthrough.

Mr Abbas was certainly addressing his domestic constituency, not trying to reach out to an Israeli audience as he has done on numerous previous occasions.

By the end of last year, his domestic political credibility was already greatly weakened by many factors including the lack of a clear popular mandate (which he shares with all other elected Palestinian officials), stagnation in the visionary Palestinian Authority (PA) reform and institution-building process pioneered by former prime minister Salam Fayyad, and economic and social malaise. Earlier this year, his standing was dealt another severe blow with the collapse of American-led peace negotiations.

The crisis for Mr Abbas reached a critical stage this summer with the Gaza war, during which he often appeared to be an afterthought or secondary figure, at least compared with the principal actors: Hamas and Israel. Effective diplomacy by Egypt, and some other Arab and western states, ensured that Hamas was not able to achieve its goal of asserting that it, rather than the PLO and PA, is the principal diplomatic representative for at least the Palestinians in Gaza. On the issue of the crossings and other key questions, it was clear that without the PA, Palestinians could not achieve any major breakthrough on easing the blockade, let alone broader imperatives.

Yet Mr Abbas, while remaining diplomatically indispensable, seemed politically to be almost a passive, if not impotent, observer of events that were driven by others. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, for all its recklessness and willingness to gamble with the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, at least seemed to have agency and an ability to drive events. This contrast is potentially disastrous.

For now, it appears to have given Hamas a considerable boost in popularity, particularly in the West Bank. As the dust settles, more Palestinians may start to realise that nothing has been gained, and a tremendous amount lost, by a conflict that could have been ended in mid-July on essentially the same terms as it was at the end of August. Indeed, with the rain and cold of autumn and winter hard upon us, and an enormous crisis of shelter and fuel looming, public perceptions of the war and its political fallout may look very different three or four months after its conclusion than it does now, a mere month on. The medium-term political impact of the conflict on domestic Palestinian politics will depend on a huge range of factors and still remains almost entirely unreadable.

Mr Abbas cannot politically afford to serenely await changes in public opinion. He must take the initiative. Yet this risk-averse leader isn’t embracing bold moves either.

His UN speech was long on accusatory adjectives and short on programmatic nouns. He did not lay out any clear trajectory for a multilateral diplomatic strategy or in some other way “internationalise” the process. Nor did he explain what, exactly, he intends to do to move away from the existing negotiating framework that he unequivocally dismissed.

And, despite last week’s “agreement to agree” with Hamas, neither side really seems to be preparing to implement the “national unity” agreement signed in April. Administering Gaza may well be a fraught and troublesome prospect, but it’s instructive that, as Hamas appears willing, and perhaps even eager, to pass those responsibilities and expenses on to another party, the PA seems increasingly reluctant to assume them.

Passionate speeches aren’t a substitute for an actual strategy. But, Mr Abbas might ask: what, precisely, would you have me do, given our meagre resources compared with the enormous challenges and obstacles we face. That question is most pointedly aimed at the United States.

Mr Abbas called for a new UN Security Council resolution laying out a timetable for Palestinian independence. But, as always, a potential American veto renders Palestinian initiatives at the Security Council almost pointless.

However much both may presently want to, neither Americans nor Palestinians can afford to walk away from each other.

For Palestinians, international initiatives invariably lead back to Washington because only an agreement with Israel can secure their freedom and independence, and the United States remains the only viable third-party that can broker such a deal.

Palestinians could improve important aspects of their strategic and political position, especially by emphasising their role as a constructive international player and partner. But there is no alternate political or diplomatic reality.

For all interested parties, including the United States – as Barack Obama noted in his own General Assembly address: “The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable”.”

This remark may have been manifestly aimed at Israelis, but it also serves as a pointed reminder to Americans that present realities threaten their own national interests. American leadership requires a compelling answer to Mr Abbas’s pointed question last Friday, “Where do we go from here?”

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine

On Twitter: @Ibishblog