Analysis'There's a difference between them but sentiment's similar'

While not cutting ties, Abbas increasingly talks of Biden as if he is Trump

After the PA president, sitting alongside Putin, declared that Ramallah doesn’t trust the US, appetite in Washington to engage on Palestinian issue has shrunk even further

Jacob Magid

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

US President Joe Biden (left) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speak after their statements to the media at the Muqataa Presidential Compound in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
US President Joe Biden (left) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speak after their statements to the media at the Muqataa Presidential Compound in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The way Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is talking, you might think we’ve traveled back in time to several years ago when US-Palestinian relations were at their lowest point.

“We don’t trust America… We don’t trust it, we don’t rely on it, and under no circumstances can we accept that America is the sole party in resolving a problem,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared.

But Abbas said this only last week, and the US president whose policies had led him to reach his conclusion was Joe Biden, not Donald Trump.

The castigation was almost identical to ones voiced by Abbas throughout Trump’s tenure.

“Now, our view of the United States is that it does not have the right to be a mediator on its own. We no longer will tolerate its mediation because it is biased toward Israel,” Abbas told the UN General Assembly in 2018.

That speech was given months after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The US president went on to move the American embassy to the city, cut all aid to the Palestinians, promote a peace plan that allowed Israel to keep every one of its West Bank settlements, withdraw a State Department legal opinion that deemed the settlements to be illegal, and shutter the diplomatic missions for the Palestinians in Washington and Jerusalem.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets US President Donald Trump In the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (Fadi Arouri, Xinhua Pool via AP)

Biden, upon entering office, restored relations with Ramallah and renewed aid for the Palestinians. But he also campaigned on reopening the shuttered diplomatic missions — a step that hasn’t been taken — and the PA had hoped he would take a more active role in resuscitating the peace process.

As the status quo on the ground continues to deteriorate, and the aging Abbas is increasingly losing control over the West Bank, the PA president has returned to his old conclusions regarding the role he thinks the US can play in putting the pieces back together.

Abbas has yet to go as far as to sever ties with Washington completely, as he did during the Trump administration, and two Palestinian officials speaking with The Times of Israel insisted that the option was not on the table. But they also acknowledged that frustration in Ramallah is nearing the levels reached during the Trump years.

“Then, there wasn’t much to expect but the blows kept coming,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “With Biden, we recognized that he’s not very invested, but we did think he’d at least be able to deliver what he campaigned on.”

“There are other differences [between the two US presidents], and perhaps the mood in Palestine now is more one of despair than anger (as it was under Trump), but the sentiment is just as strong,” the Palestinian official added.

During the Trump years, the criticism turned personal, with Abbas calling then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman a “son of a dog” and cursing Trump by saying “May God demolish your house.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) historical Palestine, the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, and a map of US President Donald Trump’s proposal for a Palestinian state under his new peace plan, as he speaks in the West Bank’s Ramallah on September 3, 2020, by video conference with representatives of Palestinian factions including Hamas gathered at the Palestinian embassy in Beirut. (Alaa BADARNEH / POOL / AFP)

While Abbas has yet to insult Biden officials in such a manner publicly, he has begun doing so behind closed doors.

In a recording obtained by The Times of Israel last month, Abbas can be heard discussing a recent phone conversation he’d held with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during which he called him a “little boy” and castigating the Biden administration for failing to sufficiently pressure Israel into making concessions for peace.

The State Department declined to respond to that insult and a spokesperson insisted at the time that Blinken “has maintained a respectful dialogue with President Abbas.”

But Abbas’s remarks last week evidently went too far for Washington, which issued a rare condemnation.

“We were deeply disappointed to hear President Abbas’s remarks,” a White House spokesperson said, taking particular issue with Abbas’s decision to voice them while sitting alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin days after Moscow announced the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. Abbas also hailed Putin’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suggested that Russia would be a better mediator than the US (which was not the first time he has done so).

“Putin is a far cry from the type of international partner needed to constructively address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the White House spokesperson said. “Russia does NOT stand for justice and international law. President Biden, in contrast, has demonstrated US commitment for decades to seeking creative solutions and working toward the lasting peace needed to advance stability and prosperity throughout the Middle East.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photo prior to their talks in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 23, 2021. (Yevgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

One diplomat familiar with the matter said Abbas’s remarks infuriated many in the administration who work regularly on the Israeli-Palestinian file, “especially since they came just days after [the administration] hosted [PLO secretary general] Hussein [al-Sheikh] in Washington.”

“But for those at the higher levels, the comments only reinforced the feeling that this issue isn’t worth the direct engagement of the president and his most senior staff,” the diplomat said.

Abbas “blithely glosses over the fact that this is about the upper limit of what Biden is able to do under US law and in combination with what current politics in Congress will support,” argued Israel Policy Forum’s Michael Koplow, referring to Congressional legislation that limits Washington’s engagement with Ramallah so long as it continues paying stipends to Palestinian security prisoners and the families of slain attackers, a policy criticized as incentivizing terrorism.

“The fact that the US continues to find ways to support so many Palestinians directly and support institutions that serve Palestinians despite being unable to spend even one dollar that directly benefits the PA is actually rather remarkable,” he added.

Khaled Elgindy from the Washington-based Middle East Institute maintained that Abbas’s frustration is justified.

“Abbas’s intemperate words about the US are understandably upsetting for the Biden administration, but his frustration is not necessarily misplaced given the extent to which the administration has de-prioritized the Palestinian issue,” he said. “At the end of the day, the administration seems to be okay with a status quo that is fairly comfortable for Israelis and extremely (and increasingly) uncomfortable in virtually every way for the Palestinians.”

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