Top ex-Shin Bet official: Arab states view Abbas as irrelevant

“The Arab world now says that relations with Israel is more important than the Palestinian issue, which cannot be solved by Abu Mazen, for the foreseeable future.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (not pictured) in Cairo, Egypt January 31, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (not pictured) in Cairo, Egypt January 31, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY)
The constellations of moderate Sunni Arab states which are on track to normalize relations with Israel view Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as irrelevant, a former top Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) official has told The Jerusalem Post.
Former head of the counter-terrorism division for Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria Arik “Harris” Barbing told the Post on Sunday that, “the Palestinian issue is not a focus of the Arab states.”
Harris said that, “Abu Mazen [Abbas] doesn’t have many years left,” due to him being 84 as well as having a variety of health problems in recent years.
He said that, “the Arab world now says that relations with Israel is more important than the Palestinian issue, which cannot be solved by Abu Mazen, for the foreseeable future.”
While this may seem like a radical shift, he said that this kind of a shift could be viewed as being embedded in Arab culture.
Fluent in Arabic and Arab culture, he cited a famous Arabic saying, roughly translated to mean, “If I and my uncle are up against a stranger, I am with my uncle. But if I and my brother are up against my uncle, I am with my brother.”
Underlying the family phraseology is the deeply ingrained idea in Arab culture that a person or a group’s closeness to another group is always relative and can be trumped by a greater interest.
In this case, the Arab states spent years coming to the conclusion that a number of their major interests are served by normalizing with Israel and becoming closer to the US, even if it is at the Palestinians’ expense.
Harris then lists off several interests which the Arab states intend to fulfill by normalizing with Israel.
Noting that the shift is based on “the strategic situation in the Middle East,” he said “Iran is the central threat. The conflict is Sunni versus Shi'ite. It is not just political, but also religious.”
The former top Shin Bet official flagged Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as only a few places where Iran and Shi’ite are competing with Sunnis for influence and control of the regional agenda.
These Sunni states have chosen to grow closer to Israel and the US, viewing the two as interconnected, especially with the current unusually close relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.
One example, he noted, of an expected payoff is that the UAE is expected to be sold the elite F-35 aircraft, partially as a reward for being the first Gulf state to normalize with Israel.
But the interest in Israel and the US from the Gulf states is broader and extends to receiving new cyber capabilities, technology, agricultural expertise and general foreign investment, said Harris.
This is embodied by a new generation of Arab leaders like Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who foreign reports say has “felt the Tel Aviv sun multiple times.”
Harris said that it helps that these countries have no actual land or concrete dispute with Israel beyond the vague commitment over the years to support the Palestinians.
Accusing Abbas of irrational miscalculations, he said the PA has failed to grasp the changing times and its attempt to retry uniting with Hamas or some kind of new round of elections will fail.
Part of the failure he said was inherent in the fact that neither the PA nor Israel will allow Hamas to take over the West Bank as they did in Gaza.
Essentially, he said Abbas was shocked when he, “woke up one morning…and got slapped in the face” by a series of normalization deals with Israel, with Qatar, Sudan and others potentially on the way.
Despite a playing field that currently favors Israel, Harris warned the country not to ignore or be dismissive of the Palestinian issue.
“If you push them against the wall too much, you can receive terror in return. There are a variety of Palestinian groups which are acting responsibly and are bound to listen to Abu Mazen,” who has failed to cut a deal with Israel, but has also stood steadfast against terror (unlike his predecessor Yasir Arafat).
Cautioning that the volatile mix of the coronavirus, economic problems and being ignored by Israel could lead some of these groups to break with Abbas and start attacking Israelis.
If these groups turned on Israel it would be far more dangerous than the lone-wolf wave of attacks in 2015-2016.
All of this is true even if Trump remains president in 2021.
In contrast, Harris said that if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the upcoming election, “all of the rules of the game could change, especially because the Israeli leadership has not hid its close ties to Trump.”
He said that a Biden win would likely lead to the Palestinian issue being re-elevated to a key component of US policy in the region.
At the same time, he said there could be an extended transition period early on in a Biden presidency when dealing with the corona crisis and other domestic issues would drain away any serious attention to the Palestinians.
Harris is hopeful that if Abbas is succeeded by friendlier officials like Salam Fayyad and Mohammed Dahlan, that Palestinian thinking on reaching a deal with Israel “could be refreshed.”
However, these individuals would not be on Abbas’ list for a successor and Harris said that it was unclear if the five or so top contenders would be more flexible in reaching a deal.
Another key issue to keep an eye on is security coordination with the PA.
Though Abbas has surprisingly reduced security coordination with Israel more than expected to show his anger with current Israeli-US positions on the Palestinians, Harris said that the PA has been meticulous to stop or warn Israel about any terror operations.
He said this is a core PA interest so that Israel does not accuse it of being connected to terror which could lead to another “cleaning house” operation like during the Second Intifada.
Instead, reduced cooperation has led to problematic incidents such as where the PA police were chasing a Palestinian car thief near the Israeli settlement of Hashmonaim.
Israeli forces arrested the PA police, though they were doing nothing wrong, because the PA did not coordinate the chase and any incursion into Israeli areas.