Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finds himself in an unenviable position as he prepares to fly to New York to pursue the difficult goal of upgrading Palestine’s status from observer status to a non-member observer state.
According to close aides, the 77-year-old official is angry, frustrated and disillusioned. He is reported to have told heads of Palestinian factions at a Ramallah meeting held on September 15 that they will have to choose between his immediate resignation and convening presidential and legislative elections without him.
Al Hayat Arabic daily said Abbas was also ready to drop the 1993 Oslo Accords, in addition to the Paris economic protocol between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel, and suspend security coordination.
It is not the first time that the “father of the Oslo agreement”, as Abbas is sometimes called, has threatened to walk away. But the mass protests that broke out in the West Bank last week, first against Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and then against him, revealed Palestinian frustration not only with rising living costs, but also with the PA and the paralysis in the peace process.
Abbas has accused factions loyal to him of orchestrating the protests during which angry Palestinians burned his picture.
Abbas has plenty of reasons to feel isolated and weak. The PA is suffering financially and the United States and Israel are showing little sympathy. They are keeping the PA alive but make sure that Abbas has little authority. Since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israel’s prime minister three years ago, attempts to revive direct negotiations were met with failure.
Meanwhile, PA’s objections to continued Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were snubbed by Israel. Washington has opted to place the peace process on the back burner for now, after failing to persuade Netanyahu to suspend settlement building.
Abbas does not hide his frustration with the Obama administration, which backed down from earlier promises and positions.
The US administration does not approve of Abbas’ UN initiative and has vowed to veto Palestine’s membership application.
The Arab Spring has had incongruous effects on the Palestinian cause. It had deflected regional and global attention from the central problem in the Middle East.
Abbas lost one of his key Arab allies when Hosni Mubarak was removed from power in Egypt last year. Instead, his political foes in Gaza, Hamas, the Islamist movement, became more intransigent when the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power in Cairo.
The prospects of a Palestinian reconciliation, the terms of which were agreed upon last year, appear dismal. A power struggle within Hamas has given the upper hand to the more radical Gaza wing. The movement’s political chief, Khaled Mishaal, announced that he, too, will resign his post. It is another blow to Abbas who has never recovered from the loss of Gaza in 2007.
With his increased isolation, Abbas is now facing an onslaught from the radical right wing in Israel as well.
Recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman launched a scathing attack on Abbas and called for his dismissal for waging “state terror”.
While Netanyahu swiftly distanced himself from Lieberman’s comments, political observers started asking if what is happening to Abbas today resembles the sidelining of president Yasser Arafat almost a decade ago.
Today the Palestinians find themselves cornered on all fronts. Abbas’ four-year term in office ended in January 2009 and yet, with Gaza under Hamas rule, it is impossible to hold new elections. An agreement with Mishaal earlier this year would have appointed Abbas as prime minister of a national unity government, but that compromise was rejected by Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Abbas’ options are limited. He has vowed to leave, but that would only exacerbate the plight of Palestinians who will be unable to agree on a new leader. His inner circle is also divided on other paths, such as abrogating the Oslo Accords or holding immediate elections in the West Bank only. Some have called for a Palestinian Spring directed at Israeli occupation, but others have warned that this would invite back Israeli soldiers to autonomous areas.
Abbas will have to make up his mind soon. Dropping Oslo now will mean that the Palestinians have wasted more than 20 years on fruitless negotiations. There are no guarantees that the alternative will be better for the future of the Palestinians.
He probably has one realistic option: to wait for the results of the US elections in November and then decide his big move.
If Obama is re-elected, there is chance that the accords and the peace process can still be saved. If Mitt Romney wins the White House, then Abbas will have strong justifications to pronounce the peace process dead and withdraw from political life. Overall, it is a grim outlook.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.