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Analysis

Abbas plays a misguided waiting game, as Hamas eyes his presidency

After the Abraham Accords ‘betrayal,’ PA head is apparently betting things will improve with a president Biden or 2nd-term Trump. But the Palestinian public has had its fill of him

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, right, and secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat attend the the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, Aughust 16, 2020. (Fethi Belaid/ Pool photo via AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat attend the the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, Aughust 16, 2020. (Fethi Belaid/ Pool photo via AP)

On September 13, 1993, US president Bill Clinton stood on the White House lawn together with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and signed the Declaration of Principles aka the Oslo Accords. (Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres was also there, of course, as his team had spearheaded the agreement.) Twenty-three years and two days later, another signing ceremony took place this past Tuesday. This time, however, the Palestinians were conspicuously absent — although not for long.

A few minutes after the festivities began, Islamic Jihad crashed the ceremony by firing rockets at Ashkelon and Ashdod. This attempt to ruin the peace celebrations was clearly inspired by Iran, whose aim was to send a painful reminder of two things: a) Iran will not allow any relations-establishing process between Israel and the Sunni states to continue peacefully; and b) normalization agreements are nice and all, but the Palestinian issue is alive and kicking.

The rockets notwithstanding, Tuesday’s Abraham Accords ceremony demonstrated the extent to which the Palestinian issue has been pushed off the Arab agenda. The Palestinian Authority and its political representatives – mainly the PLO and Fatah – have hit their lowest point ever. The PA/Fatah do not really have anything to offer the Palestinian public. There are no negotiations; the settlements are growing; there is no real political horizon; the economy is in a terrible state; COVID-19 is hitting the West Bank hard; and the chasm between Fatah and Hamas remains unchanged.

(L-R) UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump, wave on the South Lawn of the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Worst of all, the Palestinians are being pushed into a Middle East corner and the last carrot/stick they had to offer Israel — relations with Arab states — no longer exists. The increasingly irrelevant PA President Mahmoud Abbas is not currently facing severe opposition from within, but the public, the politicians, and even the armed factions all understand that as long as he remains in power, nothing will change.

Where will the Palestinians go from here? Firstly, Abbas – and even Hamas – has no intention of turning up the flames and generating more violence. Abbas does not believe in escalation of any kind and Hamas is too busy with COVID-19 and the daily situation in Gaza to be interested in another round of fighting. The Islamic Jihad rockets were also intended to embarrass Gaza’s rulers, who cut the flare-up short.

The inclination among Abbas and his confidants in the PA is to wait. An expert at waiting, Abbas has his eye on the upcoming US elections, and is optimistic. After what the Palestinian leadership branded the “betrayal” by the UAE and Bahrain, Palestinian sources say he anticipates that if Joe Biden wins the presidency there will be a change for the better in American Middle East policy. But even if Trump is reelected, he has committed to the Emirates to prevent Israeli annexation of the settlements and the rest of the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in the US president’s peace plan. The way Abbas sees it, that means Trump has very little left to offer Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

In this combination of file photos, former US vice president Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. (AP Photo, File)

It could even be — again, according to the PA’s apparent thinking — that a second-term Trump would be less shackled by calculations such as those relating to his evangelical base, and may take more dramatic steps facing Israel on the Palestinian issue.

In short, a second-term Trump is regarded by Abbas and those around him as less likely to take harsher steps against the Palestinians. And thus, as Abbas sees it, time is on the Palestinian side.

This, however, is likely an inaccurate assessment. Time is probably not on the side of the PA and Abbas, in good part because of his weakened hold on the Palestinian public. No third intifada or coup is expected in the near future, and yet any successor who seeks election as PA president, or who is appointed as PLO chairman, would find himself at a severe disadvantage as regards public opinion. The Palestinian public has had its fill of the PA and its president, while Hamas is seen as capable of extorting achievements from Israel. Which raises the question of what will happen the day after Abbas: An eruption of violence? Genuine elections for the Palestinian presidency?

Various Palestinian commentators expect the elections scenario, in which the Palestinians would agree to elections without East Jerusalem, if only to prevent chaos (fauda). Some believe Fatah would try to derail the elections, although that could turn the public against it and leave the Palestinians without a leader.

But if real elections (for the first time since 2005) are held, the chances are that the Hamas representative would win — not a Hamas member, to be clear, but someone backed by it. Fatah is divided from within, and would be hard-pressed to agree on a single presidential candidate. Jailed Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and his supporters insist he would run for president despite his incarceration by Israel for Second Intifada murders, while other senior officials who eye the top job – including Jibril Rajoub, Majed Faraj, and Mahmoud al-Aloul – are deeply at odds with each other. This Fatah split could well thus pave the way to victory for a Hamas-backed candidate.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (right) meets with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as they sign an economic agreement in Jerusalem on July 31 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Then Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (right) meets with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as they sign an economic agreement in Jerusalem on July 31, 2012 (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

One name repeatedly mentioned as a leading contender is the former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, who is considered corruption-free and who forged constructive relations with several senior Israeli figures, including former Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer, as he sought to built the institutions of a future Palestinian state.

It is premature to suggest with any certainty that this will happen, and impossible to know how Israel would react if it did. What is certain is that the Palestinian arena, even after Tuesday’s “new dawn” (as Israel, its new Gulf partners and the US see it) or great “betrayal” (as the Palestinians brand it) is as fragile as ever… which is far from serving Israel’s best interests.

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