With a vent at Trump, Abbas exits ‘peace process’

With a vent at Trump, Abbas exits ‘peace process’

In speech to PLO council, PA leader may have unleashed forces that will end Oslo Accords and bring down his rule

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, speaks during a meeting with the Palestinian Central Council, a top decision-making body, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, speaks during a meeting with the Palestinian Central Council, a top decision-making body, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — There seems to be no going back for Mahmoud Abbas after the Palestinian leader cursed and ridiculed US President Donald Trump and his aides in a pugnacious speech — a very public break with the 82-year-old’s long-standing efforts to cultivate Washington’s goodwill as the sole pathway to Palestinian statehood.

Abbas’ pivot from quiet diplomacy to loudly challenging the US and Israel brings him in line with his aggrieved public and quashes any last expectations of a US-brokered peace deal, but could also unleash forces that might eventually bring down his self-rule government.

Some questions and answers about the conflict:

Why the outburst?

The mostly unscripted barnburner — out of character for the typically buttoned-down Abbas — marked the culmination of his frustration with the US administration. In the span of a few weeks, Trump smashed what Palestinians see as the ground rules of US mediation in their conflict with Israel.

Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, then portrayed Abbas’s subsequent rejection of Washington as an unfit broker as a blanket refusal to negotiate, followed by threats to cut US aid to the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

“Yekhreb beitak!” (literally “May your house be demolished”) Abbas exclaimed to laughter from a hall packed with Palestine Liberation Organization officials, cursing Trump as he recounted the recent US measures. Burning more bridges, Abbas also lashed out at Trump’s ambassadors to the UN and to Israel, Nikki Haley and David Friedman.

His core message was to reject pre-emptively what he fears to be an upcoming US plan for a Palestinian mini-state on only some of the lands captured by Israel in 1967 and without a foothold in Jerusalem. “We will not accept a deal America dictates,” Abbas said defiantly.

What now?

A day after Abbas’ “exit speech” from two decades of intermittent, US-led talks with Israel, a PLO decision-making body outlined a confrontational approach — at least on paper.

The Palestinian Central Council called for suspending the PLO’s 1993 recognition of Israel, halting security coordination with Israel and ending Palestinian compliance with interim peace deals from the mid-1990s. These so-called Oslo Accords had created the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas since 2005, and defined Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The final decision lies with Abbas. Aides and Palestinian analysts suggested he will move cautiously.

Implementing the council decisions could quickly escalate tensions with the hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and possibly bring about the collapse of Abbas’s financially fragile self-rule government which administers most of the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Ending compliance with the Oslo Accords could also remove any justification for the continued existence of the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, Netanyahu and Abbas have overlapping interests that helped maintain the status quo for years, despite many crises and an adversarial relationship.

Both benefit from continued security coordination against a shared enemy, the Palestinian group Hamas, labeled a terror group by Israel and the US, which rules the Gaza Strip. The foreign aid-dependent Palestinian Authority shoulders the responsibility for the welfare of millions of Palestinians that would otherwise fall on Israel. The Oslo Accords have also created a Palestinian political class eager to protect its perks, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians depend on autonomy government salaries.

What’s the alternative?

Abbas says he remains committed to a two-state solution, or setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But he hasn’t explained how he can now get there, in the absence of the old framework of the ultimately unsuccessful “peace process” that called for a negotiated border deal.

Palestinians face years of uncertainty, as they try to strengthen alliances with Europe and the Arab world to make up for frayed ties with the US.

Abbas hopes to generate more pressure on Israel, including international sanctions, to force an end to its half-century-old occupation, said PLO official Hanan Ashrawi. “Without accountability, without Israel understanding that there is a price to be paid for its intransigence, it is not going to budge,” she said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) arrives for a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

But there are no firm commitments of support, despite sweeping condemnation of Trump’s Jerusalem move in recent UN Security Council and General Assembly votes.

Europe, for years relegated by Washington to the role of Middle East paymaster, hasn’t signaled a new assertiveness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are bent on curbing the influence of regional rival Iran, even at the expense of the once-central Palestinian cause, including the fate of Jerusalem, sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Netanyahu has strengthened Israel’s trade and security ties with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This week, for instance, he is in India, signing trade deals with the one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

Is it a win for Netanyahu?

Abbas’s rambling remarks seemed to provide fodder for Israeli hard-liners, who claim that he has not truly accepted Israel and lacks the credentials of a partner for peace.

Abbas at one point described the settling of Jews in the Holy Land as a colonial conspiracy, seemingly denying their historic ties to the land, and also claimed that Israel is “sending us lots of (illegal) drugs” that might tempt Palestinian children.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center right, speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 14, 2018. (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP)

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said he understands Abbas’s frustration with Trump and the Israeli government, but that this “doesn’t justify returning to the most outrageous canards about Israel’s very legitimacy.”

“If he has chosen to go that route, he has chosen to end his role as a partner in the two-state solution,” Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of Abbas.

Netanyahu has demanded that Abbas accept Israel as a Jewish state, as proof of peaceful intent.

Abbas has said it’s not his role to define Israel’s character, and that Netanyahu is simply trying to deflect attention from Israeli actions such as settlement building.

What happens after Abbas?

Israel might be able to score a short-term public relations win by portraying Abbas as rejectionist, but this won’t lessen the existential threat posed by the unresolved conflict. Arabs and Jews will soon reach demographic parity in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, with Palestinians poised to become a majority.

Without a partition deal — even less likely after the latest crisis — Israel will either continue to rule over Palestinians with lesser rights or will have to give them citizenship in a single, binational state, an option most Israelis reject.

Abbas has dismissed the idea of an interim state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, fearing the temporary will become permanent.

After 13 years in office, Abbas shows no willingness to step aside and has refused to groom an heir. His fiery speech reflected a broad Palestinian consensus and might help restore some of his tattered domestic legitimacy.

And even when he is eventually replaced, his successor is unlikely to accept what Abbas is now resoundingly rejecting.

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