Will the Arab Summit make Abbas great again?
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Will the Arab Summit make Abbas great again?

PA leader is enjoying a Trump-generated tailwind as he heads to Amman, but the true test of his indispensability will be in the White House next month

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

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures after delivering a speech on the second day of the 7th Fatah Congress in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 30, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures after delivering a speech on the second day of the 7th Fatah Congress in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 30, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

The Arab League Summit set to begin Wednesday in Jordan comes at an opportune moment for Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority president has been gaining momentum since US President Donald Trump invited him to visit the White House earlier this month. Like a powerful gust, Trump’s brief phone call to Abbas lifted him out of political isolation and set him up for success at the annual gathering of Arab leaders.

Previous months had largely soured the 12th year of what was meant to be Abbas’s four-year presidential term.

First the Saudis turned off the cash tap to the PA. Then Abbas’s ally Egypt embraced one of his most potent potential challengers, Mohammad Dahlan, and warmed relations with his bitter political rival Hamas, the terror group in control of the Gaza Strip.

Additionally, it emerged that Egyptian and Jordanian leaders had met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a secret summit in Aqaba, organized by the US without Abbas’s knowledge. Making matters worse, the Saudis reportedly agreed to join the initiative should the summit produce actionable solutions. (It didn’t.)

There was also a new sheriff in Washington, and the administration was taking its time contacting Ramallah, prompting further anxiety in the Muqata’a, Abbas’s seat of power, that the PA would be frozen out. It wasn’t until nearly a month into Trump’s presidency that Palestinian security officials got to meet their American counterparts.

In this March 26, 2014 photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the closing session of the Arab League Summit at Bayan Palace, Kuwait. (AP Photo/Nasser Waggi)
In this March 26, 2014 photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the closing session of the Arab League Summit at Bayan Palace, Kuwait. (AP Photo/Nasser Waggi)

But since March 10, when Abbas received that White House invitation in a brief-yet-fateful phone call, the Palestinian leader has met Trump’s peace envoy Jason Greenblatt as well as the emir of Qatar, and spoken twice on the phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Most importantly, he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi after 10 months without any official talks between the two leaders.

His talks with Abdullah and Sissi were geared toward closing ranks and coordinating positions with them on the Palestinian issue, as both men are slated to meet with Trump in Washington before Abbas does.

Heading into the Arab Summit, Abbas, no longer facing the prospect of being sidelined by the new administration, will be looking to solidify a unified Arab front on the peace process — and his indispensability to it.

A Palestinian draft statement for the summit calls on the Arab states to “reaffirm their commitment to the two-state solution and to the right of the State of Palestine to restore its sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem.”

It further calls on “all countries to respect UN Security Council resolutions that reject Israel’s annexation of occupied east Jerusalem” and urges countries “not to move their embassies” from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a reference to Trump’s campaign pledge, which has since been relegated to a back burner.

The draft was approved by Arab foreign ministers at an eve-of-summit meeting in the Jordanian Dead Sea resort of Sweimeh.

Abbas has also said he will seek to have the Arab states recommit to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, rather than some regional plan that might be cooked up behind his back in a forum similar to the abortive summit in Aqaba last year. Netanyahu has recently been touting Israel’s improving ties with Sunni Arab states as an avenue for bypassing the Palestinian Authority en route to a regional deal, and Trump, during a meeting with the Israeli leader in February, seemed receptive to the idea.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, greets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on June 8, 2014. (AP/MENA)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, greets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on June 8, 2014. (AP/MENA)

The Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel full relations with dozens of Arab and Muslim states in exchange for withdrawal from all lands captured in 1967 as well as a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Ghaith al-Omari, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank and a former political adviser in the Palestinian Authority, told The Times of Israel that he believes Abbas will try to use the summit to shore up his legitimacy, and will succeed in doing so — but perhaps only for the short term.

“Unless the Arab Summit is followed up by something serious in Washington, it will be just like the UN strategy, with short-term benefit but no long-term [path] to legitimacy,” Omari said in a phone interview Monday, referring to Abbas’s strategy over recent years of having Palestine accede to various international bodies.

Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank city of Ramallah after the UN General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state on Thursday (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank city of Ramallah after the UN General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state, November 2012. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Omari pointed out that Abbas’s trip to Washington, which is reportedly set for mid-April but has no official date, might not go as planned. Trump, known for his unpredictability and volatility, could pressure Abbas on domestic issues, such as incitement against Israel, or try to corner him into moving on to a regional track for negotiations rather than the bilateral approach Abbas has been demanding, he said.

“If this meeting with Trump ends up being a one-off that concludes with a negative dynamic, then Abbas’s isolation would be even deeper after that. So there is an opportunity but also a great risk for him,” he added.

Ghaith al-Omari, a fellow at the Washington Institute. (courtesy)
Ghaith al-Omari, a fellow at the Washington Institute. (courtesy)

Omari explained that much of the consensus around the Palestinian issue is due to behind-the-scenes work by the Jordanians, whose primary interest right now is to ensure that the Arab Summit goes on without a hitch.

He pointed out that the recent meeting between Abbas and Sissi was reportedly coordinated by Amman.

“If there is a US-led peace process, domestic [Palestinian] challenges will recede. But the sources of the tension are still there. They have not been fixed. He will get, in my view, a degree of a honeymoon with the Arab countries until his meeting with Trump. After that, it will depend on the content of the meeting,” Omari said.

As for the prospect of consensus during the Arab Summit, Omari was skeptical it could lead to any real change.

“The Arab Summit,” he said, “is almost a laundry list that has to be checked. And then people proceed to ignore it.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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