Inside storyAnalyst: 'He mismanaged relations with most Arab countries'

PA’s Abbas a ‘liability’ in planning for post-war Gaza, Arab officials say

PA president can’t be relied on to take over after Hamas, Arab diplomats tell ToI, highlighting Ramallah’s ineffective governance as a factor in its current weakened state

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets  with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has become a “liability,” contributing to reluctance from Arab leaders to fully cooperate with the Biden administration’s strategy for a post-war Gaza, two Arab diplomats told The Times of Israel this week.

The US envisions the PA eventually returning to govern the coastal enclave currently ruled by Hamas, but the Arab diplomats expressed skepticism that the 87-year-old president plagued by longstanding corruption allegations is capable of reuniting the West Bank with Gaza under the PA.

Accordingly, Arab allies have been hesitant to embrace US proposals to contribute to an international force that would help manage Gaza’s security for an interim period until the PA can take over, the diplomats said.

“There is not a lot of hope that this day could ever come under Abu Mazen,” the first Arab diplomat said, referring to Abbas.

Certainly, the diplomats asserted that much of Abbas’s weakness was the doing of Israel, pointing to longstanding policies in the West Bank implemented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive governments they said systematically weakened the PA over the past 15 years.

And the second diplomat noted that Netanyahu’s continued “rejectionist” approach regarding post-war Gaza planning is further contributing to the chilly Arab response to the US proposals.

Landscapers work beneath a billboard depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wearing a Hamas headband, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (AP/Oded Balilty)

However, both Arab diplomats said the onus will be on Abbas to prove that he is serious and capable of reuniting Gaza and the West Bank, before their governments agree to help pave the way for the PA’s return to the Strip.

The pair of diplomats, representing separate countries, spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, but willingness to voice such criticism at all is exceedingly rare, particularly in the midst of a war when Arab governments are working to highlight their solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Neither diplomat is from Jordan, where Abbas is viewed more favorably, but both diplomats insisted that their reservations regarding the PA president are shared by other US allies in the region and have been for some time.

For his part, Abbas has told the US that the PA will not return to Gaza “on an Israeli tank,” and is only prepared to govern the Strip if it’s in the context of a broader diplomatic initiative that leads to a two-state solution.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

US President Joe Biden has said he envisions the PA being “revitalized” before its responsibilities are extended to Gaza. He has not elaborated on what this means, but a former US official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel this week that Washington seeks new faces at the top of the leadership in addition to “significant governance reforms.”

Both of these aims were welcomed by the two Arab diplomats. Neither went as far as to call for Abbas’s ouster, but the first diplomat agreed with the second’s characterization of the PA president as a “liability.”

Abbas hasn’t held a presidential election since 2005 and a recent poll found that roughly 85 percent of Palestinians want him to resign.

The diplomats argued that more than anything, what keeps their capitals at arm’s length from the Biden administration’s post-war planning is an overwhelming feeling that it is somewhat futile as long as the fighting continues, given that there isn’t a consensus in the Arab world that Israel will be able to remove Hamas entirely from the equation.

“What happens next? How can we even entertain what will happen next?” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said earlier this month.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, during a conference at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Burned bridges

Explaining the position voiced by the two diplomats, former PA official and Abbas adviser Ghaith al-Omari pointed to the way his old boss “mismanaged relations with most Arab countries.”

Al-Omari said Abbas had “refused to engage positively” with several Egyptian initiatives aimed at reconciling the PA president’s Fatah movement with Hamas in recent years, greatly angering Cairo and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in particular.

Abbas’s poor ties with some of the Gulf countries, namely the UAE, are more well known, with the PA leader resenting Abu Dhabi’s hosting of his exiled PA rival Mahmoud Dahlan in addition to the Emirati decision to normalize ties with Israel in 2020.

“The weakened state of the PA that we see today happened completely under Abu Mazen’s watch, and he is seen as a leader who is ineffective and [one who expects] that others will do the job for him,” said al-Omari, who is currently a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, center, with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh after the opening session of the Arab Summit in Riyadh, March 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Awad Awad, Pool)

“Many of those Arab leaders are very aware of the Israeli policies that weaken the PA, but they also believe that there’s much that the PA could have done internally in terms of governance and in terms of advancing the Palestinian interests in a more proactive manner,” he continued.

Al-Omari agreed that there were other steps short of Abbas’s removal that could be taken to regain Arab leaders’ trust in the PA.

One could be the appointment of an empowered prime minister to run the PA’s day-to-day operations and “set the diplomatic tone for the Palestinians,” al-Omari said, adding that another approach would be to revamp the Fatah party — currently dominated by Abbas loyalists — in a manner that allows new leaders to emerge.

The former Abbas aide said that Arab states likely took note of a meeting last week in Doha between Dahlan’s deputy Samir Masharawi and another Abbas rival Nasser al-Qidwa with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Kahled Mashaal.

The sit-down came as Dahlan has increased his media presence since the war, leading to speculation that he is interested in returning to Palestinian politics after over a decade in exile.

Al-Omari clarified that Israel’s regional neighbors aren’t necessarily looking to throw their support behind Dahlan or any specific individual but “are watching closely to see which Palestinian leader asserts themself.”

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