Are Abbas’s threats to quit part of a ploy to embarrass Israel?

There are indications the PA president is planning to ‘ambush’ Israel at the UN this month by declaring Palestine an occupied state

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 talks during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, April 1, 2014. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas talks during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, April 1, 2014. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The flow of reports and statements doesn’t stop for a moment. Every day, the Arab press publishes a new report on the possibility that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of the Fatah party, will resign from the PLO Executive Committee in eight days’ time during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council. The meeting is set to hold elections for the Committee.

On Friday, Fatah official Mohammad al-Madani, in charge of Israeli affairs at the Palestinian Authority, told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that Abbas is seeking to give up political life altogether, but the likelihood of that happening at this point is low.

It’s also unlikely that his resignation from the PLO will take place, after all. One members of the Fatah party’s central committee told The Times of Israel that “Abbas can’t quit, it’s just not an option.” Asked if Abbas had made any such announcement to members of the Executive Committee at a recent meeting, the Fatah member said that Abbas “presented several options, and resigning from the committee was just one of them. In any case, I don’t think it will happen; we won’t let it happen.”

I heard similar comments during closed-door talks last week with a close confidant of Abbas. And the president himself? At this point, he’s not clarifying his intentions. Maybe because he wants to be asked not to leave by the Americans, by the Arab world and by the Palestinian public.

Where’s the problem? After at least four instances in which Abbas has threatened to quit and expected to be convinced otherwise — as expected, he was — a new dynamic has developed among the Palestinian public and Fatah and PLO members: The threats lose their meaning and, this time around, they expect Abbas to follow through.

But what if that isn’t part of Abbas’s plan? What if this is just a publicity stunt meant to bolster his status, while his main move, his most significant move, has nothing to do with resigning? Instead of quitting, Abbas could embark on a diplomatic process that would embarrass Israel, casting doubt on the entire PA-Israel relationship.

Hints of such a possibility could be seen in an interview that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat gave last week. Erekat, one of Abbas’s closest confidants, told the Donia al-Watan newspaper that Abbas — in his upcoming speech before the United Nations General Assembly later this month — intends to declare that Palestine is a state under occupation.

Abbas, according to Erekat, plans to stand before the whole world in New York on September 29 and say that Israel is occupying his country, Palestine.

Erekat also indicated that the Palestinians were verifying ways to walk back the PLO’s recognition of Israel and subsequent agreements with the Israelis.

Is that also an empty threat? Possibly. If Abbas were to declare Palestine an occupied state, ties between Israel and the PA wouldn’t end that very day. But the move would undoubtedly embarrass Israel in the international arena and beyond, and raise serious doubts about the Netanyahu government’s continued cooperation with the PA. It’s also possible that the declaration would lead to a resolution echoing the same content in the Security Council, seriously complicating things for Israel.

In the meantime, senior PLO and Fatah officials are gearing up for the Palestinian National Council. Senior members of Fatah are competing for three spots reserved for the movement in the PLO Executive Committee — including one for Abbas if he ultimately decides to run.

Another three spots are reserved for independent contenders who are also likely to be close to the PA president.

After all is said and done, his position will only be strengthened after the elections.

And who is running for the rest of the seats? As one senior member of the Executive Committee, Tawfil Tirawi, put it, “Who isn’t?”

Everyone, it seems, wants a seat at the table of what is considered, at least symbolically, as the international Palestinian leadership.

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