x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Abbas is playing a bluff with few cards

President's decision to not run for re-election may be part of a desperate ploy to face the White House and Israel with a final ultimatum.

Yasser Arafat, left, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are pictured together in Ramallah in 2003.
Yasser Arafat, left, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are pictured together in Ramallah in 2003.

The year was 1990, and the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, was dragging his feet yet again on committing his government to talks with the Palestinians aimed at setting a date for a peace conference. In a fit of frustration, James Baker, who was the US secretary of state, turned to Israeli officials and uttered those now famous and - as it turns out - tragically rare words from the mouth of a top US official: "When you're serious about peace, give us a call."

As if that audacity were not enough to raise eyebrows, then came Mr Baker's swashbuckling pièce de résistance: to the astonishment of the Israelis, he recited the telephone number of the White House switchboard: "It's (202) 456-1414." With his decision last week not to seek re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas took a page from Mr Baker's playbook and threw down a similar challenge to Israel and the United States and their paeans to peace. To top it off, Mr Abbas added his own, Baker-style: "You know where to find us." In the past 24 hours, he has fuelled reports that he may dissolve the Palestinian Authority.

As wake-up calls go, this one should garner some attention in world capitals, to put it mildly. For years, the existence of the Palestinian Authority, the supposed forerunner to the establishment of a fully fledged Palestinian state, has allowed all parties to the conflict to maintain the pretense that Palestinians have control over their own affairs, when Israel's military occupation of their territory and control over their tax dollars make it so patently obvious they do not.

For Israel, the authority has been a convenient foil. It regularly points to the authority's failures as evidence of some systemic, even genetic, inability of Palestinians for self-government. Indeed, such failures are cited as reasons they do not deserve an independent state. By threatening a mercy killing rather than watch the PA die a lingering death, Mr Abbas appears to be trying to call Israel's bluff.

In effect, Mr Abbas, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords that gave birth to the authority, is saying to the Israelis: "So you want the West Bank? Take it. Garbage collection? Running schools? Paving roads? Policing neighbourhoods? It's your responsibility now. Oh, and by the way, we Palestinians are not vacating our land, and in the next election encompassing this 'new' Israel we intend to exercise our democratic rights and vote."

Any attempt to deny that right would clinch once and for all the argument that Israel's policies in Palestinian lands mirror those of apartheid-era South Africa, bringing down still further international opprobrium on itself. Even the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, does not find that a palatable prospect. Mr Abbas's brinkmanship - if that is what it is - is not unprecedented. At similar junctures in the past, he has announced his intention to resign, threatened to dismantle the authority and brooked public discussion of a bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are among the few cards that a Palestinian leader has to play.

Yet this time, they seem to be acts of desperation, if not despair. In short, Mr Abbas may not be crying wolf, as the White House and Mr Netanyahu no doubt hope. Last month, under heavy US pressure to avoid any measure that would disrupt the peace process, Mr Abbas withdrew Palestinian support for a vote in the UN Human Rights Council that would have sent to the UN General Assembly a report critical of the Israeli military's practices during its offensive this year in the Gaza Strip.

To his surprise, he was vilified throughout the territories. Mr Abbas was not, however, repaid for his deference to the Obama administration and Mr Netanyahu. Instead, this month, Washington backpedalled on the Palestinian and Arab demand that Israel freeze settlement building in the West Bank as a pre-condition for negotiations. More than ever, he appeared to be a viceroy for outside powers, and a rather weak one at that.

The irony, of course, is that Mr Abbas, who is 74, was praised by many Israeli and US officials when he took over the authority five years ago after the death of Yasser Arafat. He was viewed as a welcome departure from the inveterate dissembling of his predecessor, a buttoned-down, grey-suited answer for those Palestinians who believe armed rebellion is the answer to military occupation. He became, in particular, the perfect vehicle for Israeli leaders who needed to appear to be engaged in the pursuit of peace.

The problem is that Mr Abbas, who is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Fatah political movement, has never, to put it generously, had a populist touch. He came of political age in Tunisian exile with Mr Arafat in an era when deals were cut in backrooms among a select few men huddled around a charismatic leader. He has never felt at ease on the stump or in front of a camera.

When word arrived at his office that Israeli bulldozers had razed yet another Palestinian home in the West Bank a few years ago, he was urged by his media advisers to travel immediately to the site and hold a news conference in front of the pile of rubble. "What do you think I am? A political activist?" a flabbergasted Mr Abbas replied. Perhaps if he was, he would have more cards to play now. But he does not have them, so not a few Palestinians believe it would be the ultimate contribution to the Palestinian cause for Mr Abbas to depart the political stage and take with him the charade that they believe the authority and the peace process have become. Of Mr Abbas's presidency, they might say, nothing would become him like the leaving of it.

cnelson@thenational.ae