Abbas struggles to stay relevant in the Israel-Palestinian conflict

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Overshadowed by Hamas, the PA president aims to show that he remains the one and only address for resuming the stalled peace process.

PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas is depicted on a banner hung on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City last year. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas is depicted on a banner hung on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City last year.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told US and European Union officials this week that he is ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel under the umbrella of the Quartet, which, in addition to the Americans and Europeans, also consists of Russia and the United Nations.
On Wednesday, Abbas repeated his readiness to resume the stalled peace process with Israel during a speech before the Arab Parliament, the legislative body of the Arab League.
Abbas’s talk about reviving the peace process came amid the war that erupted last week between Israel and Hamas. Abbas’s remarks came in the context of his efforts to show the Americans and Europeans that he is as relevant as ever and that they should look forward to working with him, especially regarding any future peace process with Israel.
Abbas, in other words, was sending a message to everyone, including the Palestinians and Arabs, that he remains the one and only address for any arrangements or agreements concerning the Palestinians and the conflict with Israel. He felt the need to send this message as his rivals in Hamas were negotiating with UN, Egyptian, Qatari, Turkish and other officials around the world ways of reaching a ceasefire with Israel.
THE 85-YEAR-OLD Abbas has always been known as someone who likes to be the center of attention. He enjoys making a drama out of anything that upsets him. He also seems to relish the thought of keeping everyone in suspense regarding his future moves, just as he did when he announced – and later delayed – the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections, which were supposed to take place on May 22 and July 31, respectively.
Abbas’s decision in late April to postpone the elections put the spotlight on him again, even though he received a lot of negative coverage in the Arab and Western media for using Jerusalem as a pretext to call off the vote. But in this case, Abbas seems to be going along with the famous quote: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
Abbas, however, did not foresee the consequences of his decision to delay the elections and blame Israel for hindering the vote. His accusations against Israel, particularly surrounding the controversy over the participation of Jerusalem’s Arab residents in the Palestinian elections, are seen by Palestinian political analysts as one of the factors that contributed to the eruption of violence in the city.
“The president did not expect that his statements would add fuel to the fire,” said political analyst Ghassan Abu Omar. “Worse, he did not expect the demonstrations, which began in Jerusalem and later spread to the West Bank, to turn into pro-Hamas rallies.”
Indeed, Hamas was successful in its effort to take advantage of the violence on the streets of Jerusalem to further bolster its standing among the Palestinian public. Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip were rubbing their hands with glee as they watched thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank raise Hamas flags and chant: “We are all the men of [Hamas military wing commander] Mohammed Deif!”
Buoyed by these scenes, Hamas decided to take the risk of firing rockets at Jerusalem during the Jerusalem Day celebration as part of the Gaza-based terrorist group’s effort to present itself as the “defender” of the city and al-Aqsa Mosque. Apparently, Hamas was expecting a limited response from Israel, one that would perhaps lead to only a few hours of fighting.
The rockets that Hamas launched at Jerusalem were directed not only against Israel, but against Abbas, too. The rockets were meant to show the Palestinian public, as well as all Arabs and Muslims, that while Hamas was prepared to attack Israel to “deter” it from evicting Arab families from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Abbas was doing nothing to stop the Israeli “aggression.”
“The Hamas attacks on Israel made Abbas look very bad,” remarked a veteran Palestinian journalist from Nablus. “In the eyes of the Palestinian people, Hamas became the heroes, while Abbas was continuing to conduct security coordination with Israel, making him appear as a traitor.”
To avoid a damaging loss of face, Abbas and his ruling Fatah faction leaders joined calls for a “day of rage” earlier this week in protest of Israel’s military strikes on the Gaza Strip. Senior Fatah leaders such as Mahmoud al-Aloul were even sent to participate in demonstrations against Israel in some parts of the West Bank. Fatah activists in Ramallah and other Palestinian cities tried to turn the protests into pro-Abbas rallies, but to no avail.
Moreover, masked gunmen belonging to Fatah’s military wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, appeared on the streets of some Palestinian cities in the West Bank to issue threats against Israel. This move was part of a desperate effort by the Fatah leadership to counter the numerous appearances of masked commanders and spokesmen of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the past week. It was Fatah’s way of telling the Palestinian public that the faction has not abandoned the armed struggle against Israel.
In his speech before the Arab Parliament on Wednesday, Abbas said that he was still working to set a new date for the parliamentary and presidential elections. He is also reported to have relayed the same message to US envoy Hady Amr and EU officials with whom he met during the past week.
If true, this message proves that Abbas has completely lost touch with reality. Any elections that are held under the current circumstances would be disastrous for Abbas’s Fatah, given Hamas’s rising popularity among the Palestinians in the aftermath of the latest round of fighting with Israel.
Hamas leaders are already claiming “victory” for firing thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel and forcing millions of Israelis into bomb shelters.
They are also taking credit for damaging relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel and allegedly forcing Israel to “scale down” its measures in Jerusalem, including the suspension of visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, the removal of security barriers at the Old City’s Damascus Gate and the postponement of a court decision to evict the Arab families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.
These “achievements” will be added to the fact that, as in previous rounds of hostilities, the latest fighting did not end Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip. Hamas may have suffered severe blows due to the loss of some of its senior military commanders and the massive destruction of its military facilities and terrorist infrastructure, but as long as it retains its control over the Gaza Strip, that’s seen by its leaders and many Palestinians as a “victory.”
This, in addition to the fact that Hamas once again succeeded in proving that despite the continued Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip, it has managed to amass large amounts of rockets and missiles.
Needless to say, any “victory” for Hamas is bad news for Abbas and Fatah.
“First, Abbas lost much credibility when he delayed the elections,” explained Palestinian academic Marwan Abu Sbeih. “The Gaza war drove the final nail in his coffin. No one seems to take him seriously, not even the Arab leaders. Not a single Arab head of state called President Abbas during the war to talk about the situation. The only people who were talking to him were the Americans and Europeans, who still believe that he is relevant.”
IN THE coming days and weeks, Abbas is likely to increase his efforts to return to center stage in order to show his people and the rest of the world that he remains a major player in the Palestinian arena. But the events of the past few months have shown that he has even lost control over his own Fatah faction, which was planning to run in the parliamentary elections on three separate lists. The split in Fatah and the fear of a Hamas electoral victory are believed to be the main reason behind Abbas’s decision to delay the vote.
Even if the US and the EU manage to revive the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel, it’s hard to see how Abbas would be able to return to the negotiating table amid the fragmentation in Fatah and the soaring popularity of Hamas.As a former Fatah official in Ramallah commented this week, “If the Palestinians and Arabs no longer take this man seriously, why should anyone else, including the Israelis, Americans and Europeans, take him seriously?
“This man [Abbas] has divided Fatah, alienated many Palestinians and consolidated the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians need new faces, new leaders.”