With Abbas sidelined, Israeli-Palestinian conflict enters new territory

Palestinian Authority boss appears increasingly marginalized, portending a possible change in the longstanding dynamics of the peace process.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves in Ramallah, in the West Bank May 1, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves in Ramallah, in the West Bank May 1, 2018
It is unlikely coincidental that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this weekend restated a call for "popular resistance" against Israel, as the PA boss, back up against the wall, is seen by critics as having resorted to the often-used tactic of deflecting blame away from his own shortcomings and onto the "occupation."
Increasingly, observers opine that Abbas' actions appear driven by his marginalization, with the Trump administration last week having expressed an unprecedented willingness to bypass the PA altogether if it means enhancing the security and economic prospects in the Gaza Strip. Ramallah's relations with Washington reached a nadir when the Palestinian leader imposed a boycott on American officials following President Donald Trump's recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Abbas has on numerous occasions since rejected out-of-hand the White House's yet-unveiled peace proposal.
The cold hard truth may be setting in: namely, that Abbas is nearing the end of his road without having made much tangible progress towards achieving statehood for his people. To the contrary, the Palestinians arguably are divided more than ever between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which effectively constitute distinct and competing entities. Now, Abbas is publicly being accused of torpedoing the potential Israel-Hamas cease-fire deal possibly out of fear of being further sidelined; this, at a time when growing anger is being directed at the Palestinian chief, including rare protests in Ramallah.
Abbas may be running out of cards to play and is thus flexing "resistance" bona fides with a view to biding time, mobilizing the Palestinian "street" and also as a reminder that the current relative stability in the West Bank can unravel at any moment, not unlike when chaos was unleashed for weeks in the wake of the President Trump's Jerusalem declaration.
Analysts believe the outbreak of violence would undoubtedly refocus the international spotlight onto PA-governed territory, thereby raising Abbas' stature. The strategy is essentially a fail-safe for the Palestinian leadership, as evidenced by Hamas' rising star amid months of fighting along the border prompted by the so-called "March of Return."
This time around, however, there is an apparent reticence on the part of major players to throw Abbas a bone. Instead, the parties involved—from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, Egypt to Israel, and, to a lesser degree, even Hamas and its patron Qatar—seem intent on promoting stability through compromise.
There are, it would seem, more pressing regional bones to pick.
Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a former PA Minister of Planning and past director of the Government Media Center contends that any initiative that excludes Abbas will harm the Palestinian cause. "A [truce] deal between Israel and Hamas will further deepen the territorial division and thus harm the strategic objective of the PA and the people which is the creation of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
"I have doubts that any counter-initiative will materialize," he elaborated to The Media Line, "even though there has been talk for years about [breaking relations with Israel or folding the PA entirely]. Overall, Abbas does not have much leverage."
Should Abbas indeed be relegated to the back burner then it would mark a major shift in the diplomatic arena, raising a myriad of questions regarding the future composition and role of the PA, which since its inception in 1994 has been viewed as the primary representative body of the Palestinian national movement and thus the only "address" for all-things Palestinian-related, foremost peace negotiations with Israel.
According to Giora Eiland, formerly the head of Israel's National Security Council, Abbas' diminished standing is self-inflicted, resulting from his decade-long inability to bridge the intra-Palestinian divide. "The current dynamic is primarily the outcome of the separation of the PA and Hamas, which created two political entities [irrespective of whether] the international community wanted this.
"Gaza has become a de facto state," he related to The Media Line, "as it comprises a set area with a central body that governs the population, has an army and conducts foreign policy. So in a way countries have to be pragmatic and negotiate with Hamas. Israel's main interest is security—a period of complete calm in Gaza—and it is willing to do what is necessary to achieve this."
Eiland attributes the potential to reach a truce agreement to a dramatic shift in Egypt's policy, to the detriment of the PA. "Until recently, Cairo insisted that Abbas re-assume [administrative] control over Gaza, which Hamas would not accept, specifically the call for it to disarm. Now, Egypt understands that this is not realistic and is only demanding that Hamas prevent [the Islamic State's affiliate] in the Sinai from smuggling in weaponry.
"The only party that is unhappy with this arrangement is Abbas," he expounded, "who has been left behind. But this is his problem; the PA is responsible for the situation. I do not know what Abbas intends to do, nor has he necessarily decided what 'popular resistance' will entail. I can understand his frustration, but provoking violence can backfire so I do not anticipate any dramatic change on the ground because of what is happening in Gaza."
Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Israeli parliamentarian, believes that the inclination to circumvent Abbas is a direct consequence of his obstructionist policies. "If the international community wants to advance various goals then it needs to deal with those that embody the principles necessary to achieve these ends. At the moment," she affirmed to The Media Line, "the PA does not fit the bill, as it represents [rejectionist] Palestinians who cling to the idea of armed struggle. Real leaders can only emerge once the prevailing Palestinian ethos changes. And this will only happen when the world demands it."
To this end, Dr. Wilf agrees with the Trump administration's relatively hard-nosed approach to the Palestinians, including its cut-off of aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the body tasked with supporting some five million descendants of Palestinians displaced during the 1948 war.
"The question should not be 'yes, [deal with] Hamas or no Hamas,' but rather why 70 percent of Gazans view themselves as refugees. One of the reasons Gaza has failed is that its people are committed to fighting for all of [historical] 'Palestine,' from [the Jordan] River to [the Mediterranean] Sea. The global community," she stressed, "needs to reassert that will work with anyone that makes it clear that the future of the people of Gaza will be in Gaza. [In this manner], the White House is finally starting to send a message that will foster Palestinian leaders that can eventually actualize statehood."
This line of thinking dovetails with those who contend that the PA has been coddled for too long and that it is high-time for Abbas to be showered with the "tough love" once reserved uniquely for Israel. Still others argue that pressuring Abbas in this manner could have unforeseen—even explosive—consequences.
But bombs and bullets are not new to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, as such, it appears that most relevant parties are prepared to explore uncharted waters. If so, the PA may soon find itself in the precarious situation of treading alone in the deep end.