It will take more than a dramatic lighting blitz visit to Jenin for Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas to shore up his credibility with the Palestinian people, particularly in the forgotten northern corner of the West Bank.
Some 80% of the Palestinian people want Abbas to resign, according to a poll conducted last month by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR).
Abbas’s announcement of a Jenin visit on Wednesday – his first since 2012 – comes just one week after the IDF’s two-day campaign in Jenin destroyed terror infrastructure in the city, along with homes, streets, and shops. According to the IDF, 12 Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting that ensued.
The military campaign known as Operation Home and Garden which highlighted the extent to which Jenin had become a terrorist hub, also underscored the obvious, which is that it was a city long overlooked by the PA and one in which its security forces had no control.
Last week, two senior Fatah officials, Mahmoud al-Aloul and Azzam al-Ahmed, were confronted by angry residents of Jenin when they attended the funeral of some of those killed in the fighting, and were forced to leave.
Abbas hopes that a solidarity visit will dispel some of the negative publicity, but pundits fear it is a mission of folly.
“If he goes and there are protests, then he will emerge weaker than he was before,” said Gaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It will bring into full display his lack of popularity and credibility,” added Al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team.
Frustrations on the West Bank streets
The frustration on the West Bank streets, however, is not just with the aging leader who has been in office for almost two decades, but with his government, the Palestinian Authority.
The same PSR survey conducted by the center’s director Khalil Shikaki showed that 84% of Palestinians believe the PA is corrupt. Some 63% view its existence as benefiting Israel and 50% think its collapse is in the Palestinian people’s best interest.
The PA has struggled for legitimacy and battled to maintain its foothold against Hamas’s growing popularity. It has failed to crack down on corruption, to vitalize the economy, and to implement reform measures. It has not held general elections in almost two decades nor has it inspired the younger generation to support it.
On top of that, it has failed at the primary mission for which it was created, which was the completion of a final status agreement for a two-state solution.
Almost 30 years since the handshake on the White House Lawn that launched the Oslo Accords, the two-state vision seems increasingly unlikely.
There is no US-launched peace process. Most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t support Palestinian statehood and a number of its politicians – of which National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is the most vocal – want to brand the PA as a terror entity that is Israel’s enemy.
Abbas’s impotency has been underscored by accelerated Israeli planning for settlement building and violent settler attacks against Palestinians. He has been left with little room save for diplomatic warfare against Israel on the international stage and economic measures on the ground.
His two most unlikely allies should have been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden. Instead, both made statements this week that only helped tighten the noose around his neck.
In short, as the famous saying goes, with such friends, who needs enemies?
First, there was the security cabinet meeting Sunday where Netanyahu pledged that “Israel will act to prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.”
It almost sounded like Netanyahu was about to hand Abbas a lifejacket but in reality, it was more like drilling one more hole in his sinking boat.
The words made it sound as if the PA’s existence was in the best interest of Israel, not the Palestinians. It is precisely this fear that the PA is Israel’s lackey which has helped garner Palestinian public animosity against it.
The issue was not with Netanyahu’s statement specifically but rather with the absence of any tangible pledge that would help Abbas offer the Palestinians something tangible to improve their quality of life.
If anything, it was exactly the opposite, Israel promised to pursue all the policies that Palestinians oppose. This includes continuing to penalize the PA economically for its monthly stipends to terrorists and their families as well as demolishing illegal Palestinian structures in Area C of the West Bank.
If Israel wanted to strengthen the PA, it could have pledged not to make any more announcements of settlement plans for the rest of the year or made a credible pledge to allow for Palestinian development of Area C.
The security cabinet could have made specific offers of industrial zones, job permits, an upgrade to 4G internet system or, in short, offered anything that Abbas could take to the Palestinians and claim as a victory, instead of a statement that made him sound like a collaborator.
Then Biden weighed in, mentioning the PA during a short interview he gave to CNN. He too could have extended a gesture to Abbas, including reopening the PLO mission in Washington which was closed during the former Trump administration.
He could have lauded Abbas and spoken of the PA’s importance to the US, thereby shoring up the PA’s international credibility in the West.
Instead, Biden underscored the PA’s lack of legitimacy. “I think that the fact [is] that the Palestinian Authority has lost its credibility,” Biden told CNN. He made it clear that this assessment had nothing to do with the conflict with Israel and everything to do with the nature of the PA itself.
This is “not necessarily because of what Israel’s done” but “because it’s just lost its credibility, number one, and, number two, created a vacuum for extremism… among the Palestinians,” Biden said.
It was a backhanded way of designating Abbas as a failure.
There are arguments in favor of and against the PA’s role as the leader of the Palestinian people. But if Israel and the US want to retain it as a legitimate diplomatic partner then it has to do more to legitimately strengthen it.