Is Abbas about to quit? Israel had better pray he isn’t
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Analysis

Is Abbas about to quit? Israel had better pray he isn’t

Rumors abound that the PA chief could step down next month. Many hardliners might say, ‘Who needs him anyway?’ The answer: Israel does

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.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership at the opening of a two-day conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

On Sunday afternoon, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemed exceptionally agitated. Following the murder of baby Ali Dawabsha in a firebomb attack at his family home in the village of Duma, members of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party visited him at the PA’s Muqata’a headquarters in Ramallah to express their horror at the attack and offer their condolences. Abbas sat grim-faced as Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On made her opening remarks.

With eyes half-closed as he listened to the translation, he was reminiscent of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who would also sit with eyes half-shut as he heard out those around him. While Abbas thanked the Israeli delegation that had traveled to Ramallah, he immediately moved on to attack the Israeli government, asking those present to appreciate the magnitude of his predicament.

“What can I say to the families of martyrs? Who can I complain to?” he asked, apparently referring to alleged Jewish terrorism. He attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and perhaps even more so the US administration, which he said flatly had abandoned the Palestinians. He then made a vague statement: “If the situation continues as it is over the next month, we will have a different position,” he said, without elaboration.

Abbas has made more explicit threats in the past, after which nothing happened. Still, late last month, before the terror attack in Duma — which also killed Ali’s father Saad, who died of his injuries on Saturday, and sees his mother and brother still fighting for their lives — Oded Granot, Channel 1’s commentator on Arab affairs, reported that Abbas was threatening to resign from his position in September.

Meretz head MK Zehava Galon shakes hands with Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting in Ramallah. (photo credit: Via Facebook)
Meretz head MK Zehava Galon shakes hands with Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting in Ramallah. (photo credit: Via Facebook)

The PA chief’s close associates tried at first to deny that report. Later on, Fatah officials were despatched to the media to claim that his comments had been taken out of context and that he had merely tried to threaten Fatah’s leadership due to organizational problems with Fatah’s seventh general convention. Yet despite the many denials, one wonders if this is the “different position” of which he spoke to the members of Meretz, or whether he is planning some other surprise? One of his closest associates would tell us only that “everything would be changing” next month.

More than ten years have passed since Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president, and he is now over 80. From the moment he entered the Muqata’a, he has been an enthusiastic supporter of the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, on the basis of the 1967 borders, and hoped that talks with Israel would finally yield a Palestinian state. But that dream has only receded.

Palestinian men pray over the body of Saad Dawabsha, the father of a Palestinian toddler killed last week when their home was firebombed by Jewish extremists, during his funeral in the West Bank village of Duma on August 8, 2015. (AFP/ JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)
Palestinian men pray over the body of Saad Dawabsha, the father of a Palestinian toddler killed last week when their home was firebombed by Jewish extremists, during his funeral in the West Bank village of Duma on August 8, 2015. (AFP/ JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)

Hamas’s status has grown stronger among the Palestinian population, while Israel’s government does not consider him a partner and takes pains to say so to anyone who wishes to listen, and the settlements continue to expand. The possibility that a Palestinian state will be established in the West Bank one of these days seems more like fantasy than reality.

The Palestinian residents of the villages around Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem have watched the way the geopolitical reality has been changing, as outposts and settlements take over one hilltop after another. A Palestinian state with territorial continuity from Hebron to Jenin is no longer a practical idea.

On top of that, there is the sense of betrayal that Abbas feels from the Washington administration. The American president who convinced him to insist on not holding talks with Israel as long as construction went on in the settlements is the same leader who apparently does not remember the word “Palestinians” today. At present, the White House is focused on one thing only in the Middle East: the nuclear deal with Iran. Everything else can wait.

At the same time, the possibility of reconciliation with Hamas in Gaza has disappeared, and within Fatah a competitor has arisen who is trying to undermine him: Mohammed Dahlan.

Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The question is whether these problems will lead Abbas to resign or, alternatively, to announce some other dramatic move such as stopping security coordination with the IDF. When Channel 10 reporter Hezi Simantov asked him about that possibility in the Muqata’a on Sunday, Abbas replied with an angry question of his own as to whether the attacks by settlers against the Palestinians would stop.

As I stood there beside Simantov, I was surprised by the nature of his response. I have known Abbas for 15 years, and he was always able to keep up a facade, at least in front of reporters. But something inside him seems to have broken. Perhaps a turning point was last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, when everything that happened around the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in June and the war in Gaza, together with a closer security relationship with Israel, led to an expectation that Israel would make a positive diplomatic move regarding the Palestinians. But nothing of that sort happened.

Palestinian Authority officials realized quite quickly that Israel wanted to bring Abbas’s forces into the Gaza Strip, where they would function as “contractors,” keeping things calm without receiving anything in return. They were openly disappointed.

Almost a year later, we should note, positively, that Abbas’s message regarding security coordination has not changed: On Sunday, too, he expressed firm opposition to any intention of avenging the terror attack on the Dawabsha family and to any act of violence.

But about two months ago, a senior PLO official told me in an interview in Ramallah: “Life will not look the same by the end of the summer. I am not talking about violence.” He spoke in favor of internationalizing the conflict and then repeated: “Everybody realizes that the situation will not remain as it is by the end of the summer.”

A child flashes the sign of victory during a demonstration of Palestinian Islamist Hamas supporters in support of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on July 31, 2015 in the Israeli-controlled area called H2, in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader/AFP)
A child flashes the sign of victory during a demonstration of Palestinian Islamist Hamas supporters in support of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque on July 31, 2015 in the Israeli-controlled area called H2, in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

So what is the PA and its leader about to do?

While Abbas’s resignation is possible, it does not appear all that likely. Why would he have invested so much energy over the past several months in an effort to weaken his rivals in the PLO and in Fatah if he intended to resign in September? He confiscated the funds of a non-profit organization headed by former prime minister Salam Fayyad, dismissed Yasser Abed Rabbo from his position as secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, and kept up his silent war against his number-one enemy, Dahlan. Is this the behavior of someone who intends to step down?

But then why do Israeli establishment officials still take that possibility seriously? First, because some of Abbas’s own people seem to. Very quietly, behind the scenes, people are talking about who Abbas’s successor might be if his health does not allow him to continue. And they are concluding that no one among Fatah’s members will try to fill his shoes as Palestinian Authority chief.

Second, because Abbas quitting is the State of Israel’s nightmare scenario. Quite a few Israeli hardliners would probably say: “Let him resign! Who needs him anyway?” But Israeli defense and security officials know all too well how vital he is to Israel and the important role he plays in keeping things relatively calm. Without Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian security agencies will stop functioning and Israel’s security headaches will get many times worse.

And that is nothing compared to a different headache: Without a functioning Palestinian Authority, who will take care of civilian affairs in the territories? Who will pick up the trash and keep the water, electricity, sewage disposal running? Does the State of Israel want to go back to the job it had until the Oslo Accords? The vast majority of Israelis, including members of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, would say no.

The alternative

I met the “alternative” to Abbas and Fatah on Tuesday in Ramallah.

Those in Israel who say that Abbas is not a partner for a peace agreement should probably get to know this alternative a bit better.

Hamas official Hassan Yousef at his office in Ramallah, July 30, 2015 [Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel]
Hamas official Hassan Yousef at his office in Ramallah, July 30, 2015 [Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel]
Sheikh Hasan Yousef, a high-ranking member of Hamas in the West Bank, was in Hamas’s offices in northern Ramallah that morning. So were Muhammad Abu Tir (once well-known back for his red beard, which has since turned white), and Ahmed Atoun, a member of parliament from Hamas, originally from Jerusalem, who was expelled from the city by the Israeli authorities.

The media policy of Hamas in the West Bank differs greatly from that of their colleagues in Gaza, who boycott the Israeli media. These Hamas leaders have no problem meeting with Israeli reporters and speaking with Israel’s public and leadership through them. The statements they are making sound more moderate and less passionate than the ones being made from Gaza or from abroad. It is almost a case of “Be nice to Israelis.”

Maps of “Palestine 1948” hang on all the walls, but the statements of the Hamas chiefs sound more conciliatory. To use a biblical allusion, the hands are those of Hamas, but the voice is that of Fatah.

“Hamas has already agreed to the Cairo agreement of 2005 for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders,” Sheikh Hasan Yousef told me. When I asked him again about 1967 he repeated his statement: “Yes, 1967. We accept that in exchange for a hudna [a long-term ceasefire].”

Hamas leaders in Gaza would be glad to see a wave of terror attacks in the West Bank

What about a peace treaty with the Israelis? Here, too, Sheikh Yousef takes a cautious, but not negative, line.

“We in Hamas do not pretend to be an alternative to the Palestinian Authority or the PLO. They are the ones who held the talks with you. We ask no more than that,” he said.

When I remarked that his statements sounded different from those of his colleagues in Hamas’s leadership in Gaza and abroad, Yousef (father of Mosab Hasan Yousef, the “Green Prince”) did not deny that there were differences of opinion in the movement’s upper echelons. “Hamas is a large and broad movement in terms of ideology. We are engaged in constant dialogue, and naturally there are different opinions. But when a decision on a serious issue needs to be made, one position will be accepted that represents all the members of the organization, with no exceptions.”

Yousef also spoke about the importance of reaching a tahdiya [calm] agreement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, as did Muhammad Abu Tir in a different interview.

By contrast, it is no secret that Hamas leaders in Gaza would be glad to see a wave of terror attacks in the West Bank in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority, even if it means that Hamas’s leaders here are arrested again.

Will Israel have to cope with a Hamas leadership coming to power in the West Bank if Abbas resigns? Probably not. Fatah is still strong enough in the West Bank to set the tone and the mood.

But Israel’s preference for keeping the status quo and not moving forward with the peace talks is leading to stronger support for Hamas and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority. At the moment, Hamas shares a common interest with Israel: It neither wants nor believes in the possibility of a peace deal on the basis of the two-state solution.

In its view, a long-term ceasefire agreement, one that would last for years, can be signed with Israel on any given day, even without the establishment of a Palestinian state. And then, in another ten years — perhaps more, perhaps less — the State of Israel will no longer be the Jewish state.

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