In 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), a position he has continued to hold without subsequent elections. Abbas originally held authority over Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In a 2007 violent coup in the Gaza Strip, the terrorist group Hamas wrested control there away from the PA.
While often viewed as a moderate, especially when compared to the leadership of Hamas, Abbas’ rhetoric has become increasingly combative. In addition, his actions at international fora like the United Nations have made peace harder to achieve.
To better understand Abbas’ recent behavior and the future of the PA, the Near East Report interviewed Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.
Q: On Jan. 14, Abbas stated in an address to the Palestinian Central Council that the Palestinians are no longer bound by previous peace agreements with Israel, that all nations should break off diplomatic relations with Israel, and that there is no Jewish connection to Jerusalem. What do you make of these comments?
In recent months, Abbas’ rhetoric has become increasingly caustic. He’s deployed anti-Semitic tropes, blasted international and historical figures, and constantly complained about the U.S. and Israel. His remarks on Zionism and Judaism have especially called into question the sincerity of his backtracking on his controversial Ph.D. thesis, which downplayed the number of victims of the Holocaust. But taken together, these comments demonstrate a leader who is simply unable to be a partner for peace negotiations right now.
Q: In the same speech, Abbas refused to enter into U.S.-led negotiations with Israel. In the meantime, Abbas has reached out to the Russians, Europeans and Chinese, seeking to replace the United States with what he considers a more “objective” body. Is he getting any traction?
For years the Palestinians have sought a “P5+1” [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China—plus Germany] mechanism for the peace process—in other words, one where the U.S.’s role was diluted in favor of an international diplomatic effort. The problem with that here is that other countries have little appetite right now to invest so heavily in another conflict that has failed at mediation so many times before, and that, no matter how you frame it, the United States is still the unparalleled heavyweight in these negotiations. No other country has as close a relationship with Israel as the United States, and for any progress to be made, Israel will have to take risks and have the types of guarantees only America can provide.
Q: Is the U.S. administration pushing the Palestinians to a place where they will be willing to make compromises? Do you anticipate Abbas walking back from his comments and engaging with America again? What happens if he does not?
I can’t say at this moment, because I don’t think anyone knows what’s in the administration’s plan. I will say I think Abbas could be coaxed to the table at some point, but certainly it will require skillful diplomacy and assurances from our end. Barring that – or assuming the administration doesn’t want to grant that – I think it’s easier for Abbas to just say ‘no.’ He’s done it before and paid little for it at home. Now, with a public that is already upset with Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, few will fault him at home for walking away from the administration’s plan.
He's also in the twilight of his reign, and I think he’s the kind of leader who has always had one eye toward his legacy. Right now, I think he’s most concerned about not vocalizing or solidifying compromises. He’s told other leaders he doesn’t want to be a traitor to the cause. I think he sees the intransigent route as the least risky, legacy-wise.
Q: The reaction from the Arab states to the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was surprisingly muted. Given all the regional unrest, it appears the Palestinian issue is less of a priority for them. Does this add urgency for the Palestinians to get to a deal?
I don’t think Abbas feels any sense of urgency, but certainly there is concern with the shifting relationships in the region. The coziness of some Arab states with Israel is disconcerting to the Ramallah leadership, who have long positioned themselves as the bridge between Israel and the Arab world. That being said, I think there are limits to this regional architecture between Israel and the Arab states. The broader Arab world put its peace offer on the table in 2002 with the Arab Peace Initiative (API) – if the latest peace proposal is close to the API and Abbas walks away from it, there could be friction in the relationship. If it’s different from the API, it will be hard for Arab leaders to publicly condemn the Palestinian leader for walking away from the offer (even if they are privately frustrated with him).
Q: Why has Abbas continued to reject Israeli offers to negotiate without preconditions?
Ever since losing Gaza in 2007 to Hamas, Abbas has consistently had one eye focused on his own political survival in the West Bank. His actions must be viewed through the lens of self-preservation, and accepting compromises on emotive issues in the peace process – as any realistic agreement would require – is a serious risk to a leader who has always been risk-averse.
Q: What is the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and what should we make of its recent announcement that it will begin “disengaging” from Israel, including taking action against Israel at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC)?
The Executive Committee is a collection of senior PLO officials who serve as the group’s highest decision-making body, governing the PLO and representing Palestinians at home and abroad. It often makes recommendations and pronouncements that can either confirm Abbas’ strategy or pressure him to change course.
The campaign at the U.N. and ICC is part and parcel of the “Palestine 194” campaign, a plan to integrate the State of Palestine fully into the international community and pressure Israel. This is one of the last policy options available to Abbas at the moment, who has turned away from negotiations and is unwilling to budge on reconciliation with Hamas or embracing popular unrest. If Abbas is to take any significant action in the remaining years of his presidency, it will be in the international arena.
Q: Did Abbas’ Feb. 20 speech at the U.N. Security Council signify the end of the Palestinian willingness to engage in direct negotiations and the beginning of the complete Palestinian internationalization of the peace process?
I don’t think so. At a certain point Abbas, or the next Palestinian leader, will have to sit down with the Israelis. Certainly, at this moment Abbas has the backing of Palestinian public opinion in digging in his heels with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, but that could always change if he’s sufficiently pressured or if there is a change in the political climate.
Q: Abbas, now in the 13th year of his four-year term as PA president, is approaching his 83rd birthday this month with no clear predecessor. Is Abbas’ political career near its end, and if so, who is likely to replace him? Will Abbas’ eventual departure lead to a crisis in Palestinian society?
Abbas is in the twilight of his reign. He turns 83 at the end of this month and has now been president longer than his predecessor, [Yasser] Arafat. Predicting who comes after him depends, largely, on the manner with which he vacates the scene. Should he retire or signal his retirement, a likely successor could emerge and provide a stable transition of power. Should it be a sudden departure, several scenarios are likely.
The first decision the Palestinian leadership will likely make will be whether or not they will pursue elections. After Arafat died in 2004, power went to the speaker of the PA’s parliament for sixty days while elections were prepared. That is unlikely to happen this time around, as the current speaker of parliament is a member of Hamas. Therefore, the Palestinian leadership will choose to either nominate a successor and plan for elections at a later date, or withhold power from the speaker of parliament and hold elections within sixty days. I think it is unlikely they charge forward to elections, given the fractured political system. In that case, I think there are three figures who will be major players.
The first is Marwan Barghouti, the most popular figure on the Palestinian street and recipient of five life sentences from an Israeli court. He is in prison, so his candidacy will be questioned by some, and in that case two other leading Fatah figures emerge: Mahmoud al-Aloul, the current vice president of the party, and Jibril Rajoub, the outspoken former West Bank security chief. Both Aloul and Rajoub have the credentials to succeed Abbas in Fatah, and ergo, the Palestinian national movement.
Still, some question whether the Palestinians will follow the models of Arafat and Abbas – whereby one leader controlled the PA, PLO, and Fatah – or whether they will divide it up. History suggests that one leader will consolidate his grip on the various Palestinian political entities, yet it is not outside the realm of possibility to think some type of power-sharing mechanism will be put in place when Abbas vacates the presidency.
Q: Do you think the future policies of any of these potential Palestinian leaders would likely be better or worse toward Israel and the United States?
I think it’s hard to say for certain what these leaders’ policies would be. Some have deployed caustic language and hinted they would disband the PA, others have pledged themselves to negotiations.
What I think is likely is that the next leader will bill himself, in part, as “the anti-Abbas.” That is to say, they will campaign on policies that are different from Abbas. Throughout his tenure, Abbas has maintained security coordination with Israel and prevented mass protests, two deeply unpopular policies. The next leader will likely try to demonstrate how in touch with the street they are by embracing popular agendas.
Q: How is Abbas perceived by the Palestinian public?
It’s hard to describe the perception of him without generalizing Palestinian public opinion, but I think, broadly speaking, opinions range from apathetic or indifferent to unsupportive. A majority have wanted him to resign for years. A sizable chunk of the population sees him as a lackey for the United States and Israel. He is not an incredibly hands-on leader, he doesn’t spend a majority of his time in the West Bank, he doesn’t visit the camps, and he doesn’t practice the type of politics that made Arafat so well-loved by Palestinians. He is an aloof leader, and that’s alienated him from many.
Q: Gaza is in a bad situation today. We know that Abbas imposed sanctions on Gaza some months ago and that many of them still remain. Could you explain what Abbas has done and what his strategy is toward Gaza?
I think many within Abbas’ inner circle saw protests against Hamas in early 2017 as an opportunity. For years, his advisors have encouraged Gazans to overthrow Hamas and welcome the PA back to the Strip. This is largely a fantasy right now, but one the Ramallah leadership continues to indulge. His sanctions in 2017 were meant, I believe, to speed up this public dissatisfaction with Hamas. Yet in addition to being an incredibly abusive policy to undertake (quite literally punishing his own people by cutting off resources), I think it backfired on him as many saw it as vindictive.
Still, I don’t think Abbas is afraid to cut off his nose to spite his face, so to speak. In the case of Gaza, that means looking for any opportunity to thwart his rivals in Hamas – even if that means punishing his own people.
Q: What’s the status of Palestinian reconciliation efforts?
Palestinian reconciliation is once again stuck. Both parties have yet to bridge their ideological divide, let alone their long and bloody history. Hamas has undergone a leadership change that has shifted the center of gravity within the party back to Gaza and to the military wing, which makes the disarmament of the group – a key Fatah demand – increasingly unlikely. Abbas, for his part, has no interest in risking his PA security services or the PA’s resources in Gaza while Hamas still calls the shots. So, both sides will continue to pay lip service to reconciliation without actually compromising on the issues they demand of the other.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Palestinian politics. He is the co-author of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas, the first English-language biography of the Palestinian leader. Grant has published in leading media outlets including Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and Foreign Policy, and contributed commentary to The New York Times, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of the 2015 FDD report “The Race to Replace Mahmoud Abbas: Understanding and Shaping Palestinian Succession.”
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