Palestinian Affairs: Abbas’s credibility problem

To many Palestinians, it’s obvious that the PA leader will continue talks with Israel even if the bulldozers are working in the settlements.

Abbas and Sarcozy backs 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Abbas and Sarcozy backs 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s credibility has been damaged to a point where it’s hard to envision a situation where he would be able to convince even a handful of Palestinians to accept any agreement he strikes with Israel.
It’s Abbas’s repeated zigzagging, double-talk and empty threats that have been most devastating for him.
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This week, with the expiration of the moratorium on settlement construction, Abbas’s credibility suffered yet another severe, if not fatal, blow. For months, he had been threatening to walk out of the peace talks if the 10-month freeze, which expired on September 26, was not extended. In fact, he continued to issue his threats until the last minute.
Only hours before the moratorium expired, Abbas went on the record to declare that “we won’t continue with the negotiations even for one day after the settlement freeze ends.”
Not surprisingly, at the same time that he was threatening, in Arabic, to pull out of the talks, the message he and his aides were sending, in English, to Washington and Western governments was that they had no intention of suspending the negotiations.
During his visit to the US last week, Abbas was quoted on more than one occasion as indicating that even if the construction in the settlements resumed, he would not withdraw from the talks. These statements did not appear in the official Palestinian media, where editors and journalists receive instructions and salaries from the PA government.
To many Palestinians, it’s now obvious that Abbas will eventually continue with the talks even as the bulldozers are working in the settlements. His threat, like previous ones, has once again proven to be an empty one.
Those who have been following Abbas for years have become accustomed to hearing him say one thing and do the opposite. Until a few weeks ago, Abbas had threatened that he wouldn’t enter direct talks until the government of Binyamin Netanyahu accepted the two-state solution, recognized the 1967 line as the border of a Palestinian state and promised to refrain from building in the settlements.
In the end, he entered direct talks without having any of his conditions fulfilled. He has defended his decision by arguing that he had come under heavy pressure from the Americans and Europeans.
Before that, there was another threat that Abbas had made – that he wouldn’t enter indirect talks unless the Netanyahu government agreed to launch the talks from the point where they had stopped in late 2008 during the era of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. In the end, of course, Abbas did launch indirect talks.
Abbas’s threats go back all the way to the days when he was Yasser Arafat’s No. 2. Then, he and his former boss used to quarrel almost every day, sometimes over the most trivial matters, such as where Abbas would be seated during official dinners. Tensions between the two reached their peak less than a decade ago, when Arafat appointed Abbas as PA prime minister. From day one, Abbas started complaining that Arafat was trying to undermine his powers.
Back then, Abbas did what he does best: He threatened to resign – and that was the only time he actually carried out his threat. Since then, he has been making similar threats at least once or twice a week.
The threats are often directed toward the US administration and Western donors. Abbas’s message: Give me more money and political backing or I will resign.
He threatened to quit of the Americans and Europeans did not support him in his power struggle with Hamas. He threatened to dismantle the PA if the West did not put enough pressure on Israel. Before his term in office expired in January 2009, Abbas threatened to quit if Hamas did not allow new presidential and legislative elections in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas’s decision this week to withhold his threat to walk out of the peace talks for another week or two did not come as surprise to many Palestinians. “We’re used to this type of zigzagging,” complained a Fatah legislator in Ramallah. “How can anyone take this man seriously after all these empty threats?”
Abbas is good not only at issuing threats, but also in avoiding responsibility. He is now doing what he has done in the past year – leaving it up to others to decide for him. To avoid responsibility, he has requested an “urgent” meeting of Arab League foreign ministers to discuss the repercussions of the resumption of settlement construction and whether the PA should continue talking to Israel or not.
Abbas wants the Arab ministers to do what they did in the past, namely to give him a ladder to climb down from the high tree. They are undoubtedly expected to “authorize” Abbas to continue with the talks.
This way he could justify the U-turn in his position by arguing that he has a mandate from the Arab world to continue with the talks even as the construction in the settlements continues.
Abbas’s defense is now based on the argument that he went to the talks only because of US and European pressure and he’s continuing to sit at the negotiating table only because his Arab brothers gave him a green light to do so. With such arguments and empty threats, it would be impossible to find one Palestinian who would buy any agreement that Abbas brings home.