While Abbas seeks strategy to channel Jerusalem protests, Hamas aims to step in

While Abbas seeks strategy to channel Jerusalem protests, Hamas aims to step in

PA chief says the ‘rage’ over Trump’s new policy will continue, and the Palestinians will ‘never back down.’ But does he have a plan to turn grievance into a recipe for statehood?

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas prays before a meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) executive committee at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 4, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas prays before a meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) executive committee at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 4, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Palestinians will on Saturday start a process of charting a new course for their national movement.

The leaders of Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, will meet, and then the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council will convene to discuss where it’s all heading.

It was this PLO body that gave first Yasser Arafat, and then his successor Mahmoud Abbas, the formal authority to negotiate a settlement with Israel. It gave legitimacy to the Oslo peace process.

Now, according to senior Fatah official and former Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh, this body will review whether to remain within the political framework set by Oslo.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed memorandum recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as US Vice President looks on, at the White House, on December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Shtayyeh told reporters on Thursday that both the Gaza-based terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be part of the emergency PLO Central Council consultations.

Since the early 1990s, much of the Palestinian leadership has formally been committed to the idea of negotiations with Israel on statehood, even though numerous rounds of talks have failed to yield a permanent accord.

The US has been a pillar of these negotiating efforts — the great superpower trying to use its influence to push through the necessary compromises.

Abbas has been officially engaged in this paradigm. His defenders, in this context, argue that he has been telling his people to contain their bitterness and frustration after decades of Israeli military rule, and stick with the quest for statehood via negotiations.

Many in Israel, including the most senior members of the current government, would argue Abbas was never a real partner for peace. He had opportunities to end the conflict, these critics have often said, but was not prepared to do so on terms that Israel could safely live with, and did not prepare his people for reconciliation with the Jewish state.

Formally, nonetheless, he — and the Netanyahu government in Israel — have kept the Oslo process alive.

Since Wednesday, however, the Palestinian leadership has argued that Trump upended this framework by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and declaring his intention to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians “will not allow implementation” of the new US policy in Jerusalem, he said through his spokesman on Friday. The “rage” would continue, the spokesman said. On Jerusalem, the Palestinians would “never back down.”

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the historic signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. On the far right, current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (GPO)

The premise of Oslo was to negotiate a resolution to the core issues of the conflict, including the future of Jerusalem. By acting unilaterally on the most controversial issue, the Palestinians argue, Trump has subverted the process.

Yet it was the US-backed Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority, the body that was supposed to evolve into the government of a Palestinian state.

And to no small extent, Israelis and Palestinians live in the world carved out by Oslo. This is the world in which the Palestinians have geographical areas of greater and lesser control in the West Bank, governing aspects of their society such as education and healthcare, and some security.

The part-implemented process also created periods of relative quiet for Israel, with the PA security forces working in coordination with Israeli counterparts — though this fragile partnership has not been consistent, and fell apart altogether during the horrific suicide bomber onslaught and violence of the Second Intifada.

Many Palestinians have concluded that the Oslo track has failed and cannot be resuscitated: The Palestinians are no closer to achieving their national aspirations, and Israel’s current government has largely ceased mentioning a two-state solution.

Since Trump came into office, Netanyahu has continued to propose the idea of a state-minus, or a demilitarized state with limited sovereignty. The Israeli premier argues that the current situation in the Middle East is too chaotic to allow for a Palestinian state, with full sovereign rights, that could quickly fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

In his speech Wednesday night, Trump said he hoped his decision about Jerusalem would help facilitate peace, that he still wanted to work on striking the ultimate deal, and that he wanted a “great” agreement for both sides.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

“It’s really bullshit…nobody buys it,” said Shtayyeh of Trump’s declared peace aims.

Trump also maintained that his decision did not prejudge the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, which would still be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Shtayyeh said the Palestinians weren’t buying this claim either.

“If the president kept the door open for negotiations on the borders of Jerusalem, he could have said the Palestinians have the right to a capital in East Jerusalem,” he said.

Abbas was adamant in his response to Trump’s decision, saying the US had “withdrawn” itself from its historic role as mediator.

So what’s next, from the Palestinian point of view?

The only Palestinian party that has a clear answer to this is Hamas.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh waves as he arrives for a meeting with the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and other officials in Gaza City on October 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

It is doing its utmost to escalate the Palestinian protests since Trump’s speech — praised Friday by leader Ismail Haniyeh as a “blessed intifada” — into a relentless new round of violence, and eventually erode the Israeli people’s will to live here. Hamas is hoping that Trump’s decision will push more Palestinians into its embrace.

By contrast, Abbas and his loyalists seem to have no united, viable strategy for the road ahead. Rather, three possible approaches have been highlighted.

Both Shtayyeh and Abbas’s foreign policy adviser Nabil Shaath have spoken of Russia, China and France — or more broadly the European Union— taking over from the US as peace broker. But none of these players have the same capacity and leverage as the US, backed by considerable financial aid, to push the sides toward concessions.

China and Russia, moreover, as previously noted in these columns, are unacceptable mediators to Israel — not least because of their ties with Iran.

Palestinian children greet fighters from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas movement, march in the streets in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis on July 20, 2017. (AFP Said Khatib)

For his part, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who seems to have given up on the two-state vision, is now saying it is time to work for a one-state solution, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinians who support this approach argue that demographics will eventually ensure such a single entity has a Jewish minority, thus ending Jewish sovereignty.

The third approach some in the Palestinian leadership have said they will pursue is the internationalization project, in which the Palestinians focus on getting the United Nations to declare their state unilaterally, without negotiating its parameters with Israel.

But the Americans would be certain to veto any such effort in the Security Council, and Israel would ignore any international effort to impose it.

Abbas championed what has proved a successful effort to muster international diplomatic opposition to Trump’s Jerusalem move, and protests are escalating in the region and beyond.

His challenge, now, as the Palestinian leadership convenes to discuss next steps, is to channel the protests and sense of grievance toward independent statehood. If he cannot come up with something that Palestinians believe in, Hamas will be there to fill the void.

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