x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Abbas move seen as gamble with US

Mahmoud Abbas's decision not to run again for president of the Palestinian Authority sparks speculation from across the world about his motives.

Palestinian children hold banners of the President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in Jenin.
Palestinian children hold banners of the President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally in Jenin.

RAMALLAH // If nothing else, Mahmoud Abbas spurred a flurry of reaction and speculation about the future of the struggle for Palestinian statehood after he stated his desire in a speech on Thursday not to run again for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah supporters rallied across the West Bank on Friday to urge him to reconsider, while Palestinian leaders from both within and outside his own party closed ranks around him. Further afield, Arab, European and Turkish officials have expressed their hope that Mr Abbas might yet be persuaded otherwise.

Reactions from Israel and the US were noticeably muted, however. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she looked forward to continuing to work with Mr Abbas in any capacity, a somewhat cryptic statement. The Israeli government, perhaps wisely, refused to voice much of an opinion. Ehud Barak, the defence minister, simply underlined the importance to Israel of the negotiations process while other officials said Mr Abbas' decision was an internal Palestinian matter.

By contrast, Khalid Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, said Mr Abbas should abandon the negotiations track with Israel and the US and focus on forging Palestinian unity. "Courage dictates that we, as leaders of the Palestinians, be frank with our people and evaluate what compromise has brought us, decide together to suspend or freeze the political settlement process and pursue our real national options," Mr Meshaal said from Damascus, outlining those options as "holy war, resistance and unity".

It is unlikely that Mr Abbas will heed Mr Meshaal's advice, and some feel that Mr Abbas's speech, in spite of his explicit protestations to the contrary, was really a bargaining gambit with the US. Mr Abbas laid out eight conditions in his speech that he said needed to be fulfilled in order for negotiations to stand any chance of bearing fruit. These included that UN resolutions and the roadmap should form the terms of reference for talks, that East Jerusalem become the capital of any Palestinian state, "with freedom of access to holy sites", as well as a "just and agreed on" settlement to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Significantly, said George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst, these conditions did not include a freeze on settlement construction before negotiations could start. "I think he is offering the Americans a way to back down from his demand on freezing settlement construction provided the American accept to enforce the other conditions. That will then determine whether he continues [in his post] or not."

The ball is now in Washington's court, said Mr Giacaman, who described Mr Abbas's speech as "the first serious move" that the president has taken and one that could strengthen his position with the Palestinian public. "He is bargaining. The question for him is under what conditions can he continue. And these conditions are laid out in his speech. If it becomes clear that it's a dead end, then he may resign, and then Fatah will have to seriously reconsider its political programme."

Such a rethink could lead Fatah back to a strategy of resistance, something that for Israel would be a nightmare scenario, according to Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. "The worst outcome for Israel would be the outbreak of a third intifada in the West Bank," said Mr Alpher. "That's what a leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side could result in. "I'm pretty sure that's obvious to the Israeli intelligence community, I'm not sure that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu fully understands what that means in terms of his policy options."

Mr Alpher said everything now depended on what kind of gestures the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, could get out of an Israeli government that "is not interested in a serious peace process". However, those gestures would be limited. "If Abbas thinks that by indicating he is not going to run in elections it will cause the administration to do all the things he thought they would do a few months ago, he is mistaken. Obama talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk. He is also up against the realities of domestic US policy. On a number of issues, Obama now needs the Jewish vote."

But limited gestures will serve as a panacea only in the short term. There is little doubt that Mr Abbas's speech, bargaining or no bargaining, was also a sincere expression of Palestinian frustrations. Some feel that it ought to cause Palestinians to engage in a fundamental rethink of strategy. "Fatah and leftist factions are asking Abbas to stay in his post," said Khader Khader, a media analyst with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre. "But the real question is, to do what? What they should be asking for is a comprehensive review of Palestinian strategy."

Mr Khader said that for years Palestinians had been devoid of a coherent strategy that did not depend on American goodwill, and this had proved to be a "major miscalculation". With the Americans not offering anything, he said, a vacuum had been created that left Mr Abbas in a corner and little left to compete over after him. "The PA has worked as a pacifier, to manage the conflict, but not to resolve it. This has been the American position, the way Washington wanted it. But this way will never solve the problem. There has to be another way."