Mahmoud Abbas, little Dutch boy

The PA president is caught between Fatah generals who want more violence, PLO officials demanding more forceful diplomacy, and a very critical Israeli government

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (second from left) speak with the press after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (second from left) speak with the press after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Like him or loathe him, Mahmoud Abbas is in an unenviable position these days. As negotiations with Israel enter the final third of their nine-month time frame, the Palestinian Authority president stands like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike; cornered between a Palestinian leadership increasingly itching to fight Israel and an Israeli leadership bent on depicting him as an uncompromising extremist.

Last Wednesday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told an audience at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies that Abbas was the foremost purveyor of “anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli venom,” adding that “there is no peace process. There is a diplomatic process… It has some chances, it has significance, but to my great sadness we’re not seeing even the faintest signs that the other side, and the Palestinian leadership, has true intentions of peace.”

On the Palestinian side, Abbas’s job is no easier. His negotiating team crumbled when negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh resigned in November over continued Israeli construction in the West Bank, leaving chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to stand alone across from the Israeli duo of Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho.

“The negotiations will end in failure. We shall say goodbye to the two-state solution as Israel continues its policy of facts on the ground and settlement construction,” Shtayyeh told a gathering of Palestinian lawyers in Jericho January 22. “No agreement is a thousand times better than a humiliating agreement,” he added, claiming that the PA should have applied for membership with all UN organs immediately after “Palestine” was recognized as a nonmember state with observer status at the General Assembly in November 2012.

“The PA should change its role from a service provider to a resistance authority,” Shtayyeh said.

Abbas is perhaps the last Palestinian leader today with some measure of faith in the diplomatic process. Not only does Hamas, in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, adamantly oppose any normalization with Israel, but pressure is also mounting on the Palestinian leader from members of his own Fatah party to allow an eruption of violence on the Palestinian street, while senior PLO officials cast doubt on the efficacy of negotiations with the Netanyahu government, calling for a diplomatic drive to isolate Israel at the UN.

A few hours before Steinitz spoke, Abbas, in an interview recorded especially for the conference, indicated he may not be able to withstand the pressure much longer. “I hope we succeed [in the talks], so we don’t have to resort to legal or diplomatic or political confrontation on the world stage,” he said.

“Abbas is, in a way, the last cool-headed man [in Fatah],” said Ido Zelkovitz, a lecturer at the Middle East History Department at Haifa University and the author of a 2012 book on Fatah. “He is the ‘responsible adult.'”

Abbas was the first “senior” Palestinian leader to stand up to Yasser Arafat, as early as 2003, and speak of the futility of the “armed struggle” as a means for achieving Palestinian statehood. But today he faces formidable opposition from members of Fatah’s “middle generation,” who reminisce about the Arafat era when violence and diplomacy served in tandem.

Within the Palestinian security echelon, pressure on Abbas is even greater. Tawfiq Tirawi, a former head of the General Intelligence apparatus in the West Bank and current head of the national investigation into Arafat’s death, recently attributed Abbas’s decision to engage in negotiations to the overwhelming weakness of the Palestinian people.

“The current times are among the worst we’ve ever experienced as Palestinians,” Tirawi told Lebanese news channel Al-Mayadeen last week. “We are divided, the Arab world is in upheaval … It’s true that most PLO factions were against [entering negotiations], but there’s something called Palestinian national interests. Did we compromise on any of our principles? No. That’s what is important.”

Tirawi’s skepticism regarding the possibility of achieving statehood through negotiations alone could not be overstated. “There is no possibility of a Palestinian state being established on the West Bank and Gaza in the coming 20 years,” he said. “None at all. Anyone who believes otherwise is wrong. Negotiations will bring us nothing … We, all Palestinian factions, must return to the cycle of action.” The cycle of action, he explained in case anyone missed his meaning, includes armed violence.

Tirawi’s colleague, former head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank Jibril Rajoub, also pushed for “resistance” during a rare visit to Iran last week. Fatah, Rajoub told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, “will not stop the resistance until the establishment of an independent Palestinian government” in East Jerusalem.

Haifa University Fatah expert Ido Zelkovitz (photo credit: courtesy)
Haifa University Fatah expert Ido Zelkovitz (photo credit: courtesy)

Unlike Tirawi and Rajoub, who began their careers in Fatah as members of its armed wing, Abbas started out as a personnel recruiter in the 1960s and 1970s, Zelkovitz of Haifa University noted.

“Unlike these men, he never wore a uniform. Consequently, his worldview is different … he understands the strategic weakness of the armed struggle and its damage to the Palestinian cause in world opinion,” Zelkovitz said.

Abbas isn’t only being challenged by the Fatah generals, but by the PLO diplomats as well.

They criticize his decision to freeze all international action against Israel during the negotiations period in return for the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners jailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

In lamenting the PA’s inaction on the diplomatic front, Shtayyeh has added his voice to those of senior PLO members like Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abed Rabbo, who have vociferously criticized the toothless Palestinian negotiating strategy.

Abbas, for his part, refuses to address what may happen the day after talks with Israel fail. Bypassing the Netanyahu government, he regularly meets with Israeli parliamentarians, think tanks and prominent members of civil society. In a recent speech to East Jerusalem activists, he boasted of the pacifism of villagers in Qusra when dealing with settlers suspected of undertaking a “price tag” attack.

“Abbas realizes that today the strength of the Palestinians lies not in the battlefield but in the diplomatic corridors of the UN and in the advocacy front in Europe,” Zelkovitz said.

For now, he’s holding his own, honoring his pledge to the Americans to let the nine months of negotiations play out — blaming the Israelis for their obduracy, being blamed by Israel for his. Very soon, though, Abbas will have to make a decision on Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework plan — designed to keep those talks going until at least the end of the year. Will he say yes to the Americans, and further frustrate his domestic critics? Or defy Kerry, and take that finger out of the dike?

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