In his first public interview in five years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel’s incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was “not a man who believes in peace” with the Palestinians but that he’d be forced “to deal with him” even if the prospects for peace talks are minimal.
Abbas also criticized the United States’ brokering of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying in the interview, conducted on Friday and broadcast on Sunday by Egyptian news network al-Qahira, “since the United States stuck its hand in the Palestine dossier, not a single step forward has been taken.”
Going further back in history, Abbas claimed that the United States was largely behind the Balfour Declaration — the 1917 statement by the British government in favor of a “national home for the Jewish people”– and that the United States asked Great Britain to end its mandate in Palestine in order to implement its own de facto control over the area.
Despite what Abbas characterized as the American government’s slant toward Israel, the PA president said that increasingly many Americans, particularly American Jews, opposed Israeli policies. “Many Americans do not accept America’s position and American Jews for the last year or two have been saying that Israel is tilting towards racism. Ninety percent of the synagogues in America do not believe in Israel’s policy.”
In his interview, Abbas also criticized the United Nations — though he said the Palestinians would seek full membership in the world body — and affirmed his commitment to soon hold Palestinian Authority legislative elections, which would be the first since 2006.
“I know Netanyahu, we’ve worked together a lot, since the 1990s… and he is not a man who believes in peace,” Abbas said in the interview. “But I have no other choice but to deal with him.” The right-wing Likud party leader was tapped on Sunday by President Isaac Herzog to form a governing coalition with his far-right and religious partners.
Israel under Netanyahu and the PA with Abbas at the helm held multiple rounds of US-brokered talks for peace since 2009, when Netanyahu began his second term as Israeli premier. Netanyahu served for the next 12 years and is expected to begin a third term after winning the November 1 elections.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have now been moribund for over eight years. The last push, led by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, fell apart in April 2014 after nine months of tense negotiations.
While Israel has historically maintained security cooperation with the PA in the West Bank — an arrangement that both sides see as vital — relations between Jerusalem and Ramallah became increasingly strained after negotiations fell apart.
Netanyahu and Abbas continued to cross paths but contact was scant; their last public phone call was in 2017 after a Palestinian terror attack.
That same year, as former US president Donald Trump began his term, security ties between Israel and the PA were downgraded amid a flurry of moves by the White House that appeared to favor the Israeli position.
The Trump administration then turned its focus to regional initiatives and brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. The Palestinians at the time said the agreements were “disgraceful” and a betrayal of their cause. Both Israel and the US, first under Trump and then under Joe Biden, believe the accords can be leveraged to strengthen the Palestinian Authority.
During the short-lived coalition formed by ex-premier minister Naftali Bennett in 2021, high-level contacts between Israel and the PA resumed. But Bennett did not seek a meeting with Abbas, citing the PA’s pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and continued payment of monthly stipends to security prisoners, including those convicted of killing Israelis.
In the interview aired in Egypt, Abbas also discussed domestic issues and promised that there would soon be talks on implementing the reconciliation agreement signed between his Fatah party and Hamas last month in Algeria.
Fatah and the Hamas terror group have been at odds since elections in 2006, which were won by Hamas but never recognized by the international community. Months later, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a deadly conflict that consolidated years of division, with Fatah administering Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank — a development that Palestinians refer to simply as “the separation.”
The agreement in Algeria saw the two sides agree to hold elections next October. Similar deals have been signed since in 2006, but none have led to any actual voting and the PA parliament remains dissolved to this day. Abbas’s presidential term expired in 2009.
Parliamentary and presidential elections had been set to take place last year, but were canceled.
The purported rationale for the cancellation was Israel’s alleged refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem, but most see that as a convenient out for the PA president, whose desire to play up his democratic bona fides for the new administration in the White House proved ultimately less persuasive than his fear of a drubbing at the polls from Hamas.
In his interview on Sunday, Abbas returned to the idea that voting in East Jerusalem is a sine qua non for his willingness to hold elections.
“Israel refuses to let us conduct elections in Jerusalem. I cannot hold elections without Jerusalem. Ignoring Jerusalem now would mean our giving up on it,” Abbas said.
Justifying the cancellation of the previously scheduled election, Abbas said, “There was no agreement from Israel, so we postponed the election temporarily, until such time as the opportunity would be afforded to us to hold the elections in Jerusalem. Israel, however, has up till now insisted on its position, and we cannot accept that.”
Although polling shows that the PA under Abbas is deeply unpopular, the man commonly known as Abu Mazen said of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the umbrella organization for his Fatah party: “It is recognized in the Arab world and internationally and not holding it together would spell the perdition of the Palestinian cause. Abandoning it would be a loss for the people, who’d be losing their most important political gain since 1948.”
United Nations and United States
Abbas also vowed, as he often did in the past, to seek full membership for a Palestinian state at the United Nations.
“We will take steps toward full membership in the United Nations. We will persist, no matter the pressures we face [because] we have a case and will not take orders from anyone,” he added.
The 86-year-old PA president had some choice words for the United Nations, to which the Palestinian Authority belongs as “a non-member observer state.” This status — shared only with the Holy See — allows the PA to address the UN General Assembly, but not to vote on UN resolutions.
“The United Nations has ignored the Palestinian cause for more than 70 years — from 1947 until today — and has not implemented any decisions,” Abbas lamented.
Pro-Israel critics of the UN, on the contrary, argue that the organization is biased against the Jewish state. They point to the fact that in 2021 the United Nations General Assembly passed 14 resolutions that specifically condemned Israel, while only five other resolutions were passed to single out countries other than Israel for condemnation, including human-rights violators such as Iran, North Korea and Myanmar. From 1975 to 1991, the UN defined Zionism as “a form of racism.”
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.