Why did Abbas change course on applying to UN bodies?

Why did Abbas change course on applying to UN bodies?

And how will he manage to secure US funding for a Hamas-backed unity gov't? Our interview with the PA president yields more questions than answers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting with journalists in Ramallah a day before his Fatah faction signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, April 22, 2014. (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images/JTA/File)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting with journalists in Ramallah a day before his Fatah faction signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, April 22, 2014. (Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images/JTA/File)

On Wednesday afternoon, I met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his office in Ramallah. Abbas had returned the previous night from a visit to the UK and Venezuela. In the room with us sat Ziad Abu Amr, who is not considered a Fatah man but has become, over the years, one of the key shapers of PA and PLO policy. Also present, as ever, was Abbas’s veteran spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, who advised Yasser Arafat for many years as well.

Abbas, as he often does, spoke quite openly and was not short on surprises. He said in our interview, first reported in The Times of Israel later Wednesday and detailed more fully here, that the PA would refrain, for now, from applying for membership in further UN bodies or international organizations.

This statement is surprising. For weeks, we heard that the PA intended to turn to 48 more international organizations (having joined 15 at the start of April) immediately after the failure of peace talks and the cancelled release of prisoners. And now, with no explanation, Abbas decides that he is suspending such moves at the UN and elsewhere.

I tried, of course, to understand what was behind the decision, but Abbas wouldn’t expound on it. He would only emphasize that it wasn’t a policy that would stretch on indefinitely.

“This is according to the circumstances,” he said. “Let’s see what happens, and we will act accordingly.”

Almost a week before, Abbas had met in London, separately, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and US Secretary of State John Kerry. He laughed when I asked him about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Livni’s meeting was convened on her own personal initiative. He and his two advisers insisted that such a visit wouldn’t take place against the wishes of the prime minister; the meeting had been coordinated well before, they said. (Hebrew media reports assert the contrary, and claim Netanyahu wanted to fire Livni for meeting Abbas against his wishes.)

Abbas didn’t want to expand much on what was said between him and Livni. “She asked that we remove all the advisers, and we remained alone. Erekat also went. We spoke quite a bit on the prisoners. She said to me that we did not understand the Israeli position properly [about the Arab-Israeli prisoners whom Abbas wanted freed in the fourth batch of releases, which did not go ahead]. But these were things that were agreed upon from the outset, so how only at the end of the process did we ‘not understand’?”

I pointed out that perhaps the American mediation was more damaging than helpful, Israel having claimed that Kerry made promises to Abbas about Israel releasing Arab-Israelis when Jerusalem had not assented to the idea. Abbas smiled at Abu Amr, as if this wasn’t the first time the notion had been mentioned in this room.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the London meeting is whether something was said there that caused Abbas to decide against turning to the UN for now? Is it possible that the conversation with Livni brought about a quiet agreement between Israel and the PA on this issue? And if so, what did Israel offer in return? Did Israel offer a quiet settlement freeze or prisoner release, or perhaps simply ask for more time to come up with options for a fair exchange?

A senior Palestinian source was adamant, in a conversation with The Times of Israel, that this line of thinking was inaccurate. Suspending moves toward the UN and other international groups “was our gesture to John Kerry. He asked, during his London meeting with Abbas, that we stop turning to international organizations for now, in order to allow for the renewal of talks and perhaps even something larger, and this is the source of Abbas’s agreement to this move.”

The Palestinian unity government

If there are no more unexpected developments, the Palestinian “national unity” government will be presented next week. When I asked Abbas if he would head it, he said there was still no final agreement.

“It is possible that it will be [headed by current Prime Minister] Rami Hamdallah, but in any case this will be a government that carries out my policies. It will not interfere in political matters.”

He presented the principles that will guide the new government: “It will recognize Israel; it will recognize the agreements it signed with Israel; and it will renounce terror and violence. There will be no Hamas or Fatah people in it. Everyone is independent.”

He had also presented these details to Livni and to the US administration, he said, and emphasized that these would be the guidelines. According to Abbas, however, Livni was not too impressed, to say the least.

“For seven years, we have been trying to reach unity,” Abbas said. “Seven years… and you’re still saying you were surprised. By what? The same for us turning toward 15 international bodies. I sent an official letter to [Netanyahu’s envoy] Yitzhak Molcho and [Kerry’s envoy] Martin Indyk, two days before. I warned that, if 30 prisoners weren’t released, I would turn to these institutions. A day went by… two days; I held up the entire Palestinian leadership here in the Muqata’a without explaining why.”

Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (L) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, April 23, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad (left) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, on April 23, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Abbas said that when he understood that the Israelis were avoiding a response, he decided to turn to the 15 organizations. (Israeli officials insist they received no such letter from Abbas.)

The Fatah-Hamas unity path won’t be easy for Abbas. Even if he hopes that the international community will accept the new government, with him at its head — which looks possible regarding the European Union and even the White House — he will likely find himself in confrontation with the US Congress, which controls aid money to the PA.

According to American law, the US must refrain from giving aid to a “power-sharing government” that includes Hamas, or one in which Hamas has “undue influence” as the result of an agreement, “unless the president certifies that the PA government, including all ministers, has accepted the following principles: 1) recognition of ‘the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist’; and 2) acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.”

Abbas can claim that this is a government in which Hamas doesn’t have any influence. But there will be plenty of members of Congress who will say that it is enough that a parliament controlled by Hamas approves the new government in order to invoke the concern over “undue influence.”

Abbas has found one way to try to get around this problem — by planning to have the new government give its pledge in front of him and not in front of the parliament. But there will still be those in Congress who insist that this does not change the fact that a Hamas-dominated legislature approves it.

And this is Abbas’s main problem: Hamas will, indeed, have approved the ministers who will be in the government.

Furthermore, all of those ministers will have to accept the two clauses in the US law written by none other than current Vice President Joe Biden. Abbas has already announced that the government will accept the second clause. But the first clause, which includes the language about “the Jewish state of Israel,” will not be accepted by Abbas or anyone else on the Palestinian side.

Abbas acknowledges that there will be difficulties along the way to Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and elections for a new president and parliament. “We want to reach elections,” he said in our interview. “But if things go wrong before then, we will know how to deal with the consequences.”

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