Mahmoud Abbas is here to stay, says Mahmoud Abbas

But with public support at an all-time low, and challengers to his rule multiplying, the Palestinian leader may not survive if he can’t address his people’s problems

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 speaks during a Christmas lunch with members of the Christian Orthodox community in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 6, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Christmas lunch with members of the Christian Orthodox community in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 6, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

The speech Wednesday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas offered nothing new: promises to appeal to international organizations and to put “his house” (the PLO and Fatah) in order, his yearning for elections and his commitment to improve conditions in Gaza, and on and on.

In other words, it was more of the same. But more prosaically and specifically, anyone who was hoping Abbas would announce the appointment of a deputy was lefy disappointed.

The speech had one purpose: to inform the Palestinian public, as well as Abbas’s many challengers, that he intends to stay in power for a long time yet, at least as long as his health permits. Faced with open challenges to his rule from Fatah competitors like Mohammad Dahlan, while rumors swirl about his declining health, Abbas stepped in front of the cameras to inform all the disappointed challengers that he is not only healthy, but does not intend to step down anytime soon.

A deputy? Don’t be silly. He has no heir, and won’t have one as long as he can function.

Dismantling the Palestinian Authority? A slogan spread by his challengers, or by the Israeli government. In his view, the PA, too, will continue to exist for a long time yet.

And indeed, in recent weeks the Palestinian Authority, especially its security organs, have acted with determination to stabilize the security situation vis-à-vis Israel. The proof of this is most easily found in Israel’s own defense establishment.

As the Haaretz daily reported Thursday, the Palestinian security services have renewed their efforts to disrupt and disperse protests in the West Bank (something they had stopped doing in the first two months of this “intifada”), to arrest Hamas operatives and even to uncover terror cells, since these constitute one of the most serious threats to the continued existence of the PA. The Palestinian security forces continue to demonstrate that they are in control in most places.

As with Abbas’s speech, that security success raises the larger question: How long can it last?

The Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At the moment, at least, the Palestinian public is not thrilled, to put it mildly, by this intifada. The large refugee camps (Jenin, Deheishe, Askar, Balata), which drove the first and second intifadas, are refusing to join the third. They generally view the latest violence as a passing event, destined to fail, which is not really connected to them or their fate.

The alienation of the West Bank refugee camps from the “al-Quds Intifada” (only Shuafat and Qalandiya have produced stabbing or car-ramming terrorists, while one attacker, Ashrakat al-Katnani, lived in Askar) is part of the general isolation of the refugees from the rest of Palestinian society. In the eyes of many of the camps’ residents, the events of the past three months belong to the “others,” the urban Palestinians, the “Facebook children.”

As long as the camps don’t join, this intifada will likely continue to be called, for good reason, the “lone-wolf intifada.”

Abbas’s main problem is not the immediate survival of the Palestinian Authority, but its continued existence over the long term. Abbas has nothing to offer the Palestinian public, and in the end, even if the uprising never becomes widespread, it could turn against him.

In this January 3, 2011 photo, Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
In this January 3, 2011 photo, Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

In the absence of a peace process, and as settlements continue to grow, the PA president must act to restore the public’s faith in him if he hopes to avoid a PA collapse. Abbas must also contend with an underperforming economy, the complete severing of Gaza from the West Bank, and growing economic desperation in the Strip, as well as the cavalcade of challengers from within Fatah (not to mention Hamas, which is constantly trying to carry out terror attacks against Israelis — to harm Israel, of course, but also in order to weaken the PA and Abbas).

In recent months, Abbas’s position in public opinion polls has reached unprecedented lows, and he understands this as well as his challengers do.

Occasionally, he tries to address the problem by the blunt expedient of toppling potential challengers: Mohammad Dahlan; Salam Fayyad; and the latest victim, Palestinian sports chief Jibril Rajoub, who dared to give interviews to Palestinian television on diplomatic issues, rather than sticking to sports.

Yet Abbas will need to do far more to stabilize his position – a dramatic, meaningful diplomatic step, whether toward Israel or Hamas. Abbas no longer enjoys the trust of the Palestinian public, as every conversation with Palestinian youth illustrates. Bashing his domestic competitors may help him in the coming news cycle, and even over the next few days and weeks, but it won’t save him, or his PA, for much longer.

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