Palestine says good-bye to the US-led peace process
Mahmoud Abbas had a problem.
With his dreams of statehood getting bulldozed by the real estate magnate in the White House, the Palestinian leader’s legacy was on life support. At 83 and widely rumored to be suffering from heart and lung trouble, the increasingly unpopular president needed a major jolt to revive his sagging political fortunes.
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Convening the Palestinian people’s parliament in exile on April 30 seemed the perfect plan. By gathering 700-plus members of the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah for the first time in 22 years, Abbas hoped to renew his legitimacy nine years after his four-year term officially ended. The parliament would endorse his hard-nosed refusal to even entertain the Donald Trump administration’s so-called “deal of the century,” which the Palestinians consider to be the “gift of the century” — to Israel. The outside world would see a legally constituted council having its president’s back. And he would be able to install loyalists in key positions to defend a legacy tarnished by the failed peace process.
Best of all, Abbas would be in control. He summoned parliament speaker Salim Zanoun and Azzam al-Ahmad, his go-to man in the Fatah organization, early in 2018. He asked them to do all they could to ensure a quorum. Potential obstructionists would simply not be invited, the loose membership criteria amended as needed.
Those plans quickly went off the rails. With the eyes of the world fixated on the Gaza border protests and the brutal Israeli response, hardly anyone in the occupied territories or outside took much interest in a gathering of men in suits prognosticating about a Palestinian future that seems ever more distant.
Among the few paying attention was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who quickly pounced when Abbas veered off script and appeared to blame the Jews for their plight in Nazi-era Europe. The anti-Semitic trope infuriated the Palestinians’ allies around the world, including European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who called Abbas to express her displeasure.
“Her call worried Abbas because she told him that EU member states will not tolerate this kind of language,” Mohammad Daraghmeh, a longtime reporter covering Palestinian affairs, told Al-Monitor. "And that even Sweden, which is the only EU country to recognize Palestine, would not be able to continue supporting the Palestinian government.”
Two days after the speech, Abbas apologized, calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime in history” and assuring the world of his “full respect for the Jewish faith.” But the damage was done. The speech and its aftermath dominated news coverage of the Palestinian National Council for days. It was but the latest ignominious setback in the Abbas era, which had started with high hopes for peace when he inherited the mantle of Palestinian leadership from Yasser Arafat 14 years earlier.
As a young Associated Press reporter assigned to covering the muqata, the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah, Daraghmeh had an unrivaled firsthand look at Arafat’s unorthodox approach to governing. The keffiyeh-wearing freedom fighter turned global celebrity never seemed to settle into a 9-to-5 routine, hosting guests from around the world at all hours even after his triumphant return from exile following the signing of the Oslo Accord.
“Our work schedule during Arafat’s era was chaotic,” Daraghmeh recalled in an interview with Al-Monitor. “You never knew when news would break, and you had to be around the headquarters until very late hours of the night.” With Arafat’s death in November 2004 and Abbas’ accession to the seat of power, everything changed. Gone were the all-nighters and the military fatigues, replaced by a suit and tie and regular office hours. “Abbas rarely has appointments at night,” Daraghmeh said.“He comes to work in the morning, goes home for lunch and returns for afternoon meetings, and by 5 he goes home for good.”
The businesslike atmosphere was but the first of many changes brought by Abbas, who favored “soft power” and diplomacy over militancy and violent confrontation. After a lifetime in the trenches, the former academic was determined to turn the page on the Arafat era and write his own chapter in the struggle for Palestinian rights.
Born in 1935 in Safed in the Galilee region of British-ruled Mandatory Palestine, Abbas fled with his family to Syria during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948. He studied law at the University of Damascus, later pursuing graduate political science studies in Moscow. His doctoral dissertation on a supposed “secret relationship” between Nazism and Zionism has fueled accusations over the years that he’s at heart an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, raising lingering doubts among Israelis about the sincerity of his commitment to peace.
|Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech during a rally marking the 12th anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, in Ramallah, West Bank, Nov. 10, 2016.||Reuters/Mohamad Torokman|
By the 1950s Abbas was involved in underground Palestinian politics in Qatar, where he was recruited to join Arafat’s Fatah movement in 1961. Over the next three decades Abbas rose through the ranks, eventually signing the Oslo Accord on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian umbrella group. The accord, signed in 1993 in Washington, cemented Abbas’ status as a welcome alternative to the more combative Arafat in the eyes of the West. Palestinian critics of the deal marked him as a sell-out too easily duped by the mirage of peace.
With Oslo failing to engender a Palestinian state, tensions with Israel became explosive. Ariel Sharon, at the time the leader of the right-wing Likud opposition party, finally lit the fuse with his September 2000 visit to Jerusalem’s sacred Haram al-Sharif, known to the Jews as the Temple Mount. The provocative gesture sparked a second intifada, or uprising, that would last until 2005.
Abbas had named his second son Yasser in honor of Arafat, but by the early 2000s the two men were in open conflict. In March 2003, Abbas had been named prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, created as a result of the Oslo Accord, but resigned that September in a power struggle with Arafat, who opposed Abbas’ plans to target Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants attacking Israel. The political career of Arafat’s handpicked deputy appeared to be over. But the revolutionary leader’s unexpected death in November 2004 threw Palestinian politics into disarray.
As the secretary-general of the PLO, Abbas was next in line to succeed Arafat as the group’s chairman. Two months later, he coasted to victory as Fatah’s candidate in the Palestinian Authority’s presidential elections. Just like that, the man in the background who was known to sulk and disappear from the public eye for months at a time when he had disagreements with Arafat was the new leader of the Palestinians. With the eyes of the world upon him, Abbas quickly had to announce to the world and his own people what exactly he stood for.
“Abbas was going in a democratic direction until the split in Gaza.”
Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath
While paying tribute to the PLO’s historic role, Abbas offered a clean break with its militant past. “To achieve [our] national goals, we will remain committed to the PLO’s strategic choice: The choice of achieving just peace and our national goals through negotiations,” he declared in his inaugural address. In short order, he turned to the directors of Palestine TV and ordered them to clean up the station’s content. “I want the blood off the screen,” he is reported to have told Radwan Abu Ayyash, then director of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.
At the time, video clips of wounded and killed Palestinians dominated news coverage as part of Arafat’s nationalist campaign to drum up support for the second intifada, which only ended in 2005. The Israelis and the international community in turn denounced Palestinian incitement. “Abbas wanted Palestine TV to be a modern TV that engages people’s minds and doesn’t play on their emotions with cheap slogans that rev up people’s sentiments,” Nabil Shaath, a minister of information during Abbas’ first government who now serves as special adviser to the president, told Al-Monitor.
Abbas also broke with Arafat by denouncing the Gaza-based Islamic Hamas movement. He spoke out against the group’s “militarization” of the intifada, declaring its homemade rockets “amateur” and its violent resistance “futile.”
As Israel stepped up its military response after an uptick in militant attacks in the early summer of 2002, US President George W. Bush issued a plea to the Palestinians.
“I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders,” Bush intoned. “Leaders not compromised by terror.” Back in Ramallah, Abbas took the message to heart. Within three months of Arafat’s death, the new Palestinian leader was declaring an end to the second intifada and shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town where countless accords have been brokered.
|Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shake hands at the start of their bilateral meeting at the Feb. 8, 2005, peace summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.||Getty Images|
“A new opportunity for peace is born today in the city of peace,” Abbas declared at the February 2005 summit. “Let's pledge to protect it.” For a while, the return to diplomacy appeared to pay dividends for Abbas and the Palestinians. Bush hosted Abbas in Washington in May 2005, repeatedly greeting him as “Mr. President” — a courtesy the Americans never extended to Arafat — and declaring it his “honor” to “welcome the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people to the White House.”
Along with the accolades, Abbas got $50 million in aid to pay for housing improvements and infrastructure in Gaza. The plan was simple enough: The United States would prop up the Palestinian Authority with up to $200 million a year, while pressing the wealthy Gulf powers to step up their donations. Israel in turn would loosen its grip on Gaza, giving Abbas space to reorient the Palestinian project.
The autocratic Arafat had bequeathed Abbas corrupt institutions, recalls Yasser Abed Rabo, a former secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee. The new Palestinian president was determined to reform the PA into a modern, functioning state. Abbas, Abed Rabo told Al-Monitor, “was serious in presenting a positive, civilized and democratic image in his first years in power.”
As always, events on the ground would interfere. In August 2005, Israel ended its 38-year military presence in Gaza and pulled out its troops. But instead of seeing the move as a victory for diplomacy, many Palestinians credited Hamas’ yearslong armed resistance for forcing the Israelis’ hand. In January 2006, when the Palestinian National Council held its first legislative elections in a decade at Abbas’ urging, the Islamist militant group swept the polls, grabbing 74 of 132 seats. True to his word, Abbas recognized the results and appointed senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh prime minister.
Hamas had run largely on an anti-corruption campaign, but its platform of resistance to Israel set it up for conflict with Abbas' Western backers. Even before the last votes were counted, the same world leaders who had been singing the praises of democratic elections as an antidote to Middle East strife were carrying a different tune. “A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace,” Bush told The Wall Street Journal in a January 2006 interview as the Islamists seemed poised for victory. “And so you’re getting a sense of how I’m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.”
Neither side would back down. Hamas refused to forswear violence or recognize Israel. The international community in turn boycotted the new government. Abbas was caught in the middle, his Fatah movement refusing to join Haniyeh's government.
By 2007, tensions between the two factions had given way to open warfare in the streets of Gaza. Convinced of a Fatah-US plot to boot them from power, the Islamists of Hamas took the initiative and attacked the Fatah-dominated security forces throughout the Strip. More than 100 people were killed between June 10 and June 15 in the so-called Battle of Gaza, which ended with a decisive Hamas victory.
The conflict would cause a Palestinian split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that endures a decade later. It would also have a major impact on Abbas, who realized that his opponents took his liberal attitude as a sign of weakness. “Abbas was going in a democratic direction until the split in Gaza occurred,” his adviser Nabil Shaath told Al-Monitor. “He truly believed in democracy and wanted so badly to apply it but the split turned him in the opposite direction.”
Daraghmeh the reporter is more blunt, saying of Abbas, “The fact that he voluntarily passed power to Hamas, who turned around and revolted against him, changed him into an authoritarian leader.”
Ironically, Abbas' turn from an optimistic reformer into a hard-nosed survivor would leave him isolated not only from his own people but from the same international community that pressured him to take on Hamas. The political bickering would soon get personal, with Abbas’ family members becoming the targets of schoolyard taunts.
|Hamas members ride an armored vehicle seized from Fatah during a celebration rally on June 15, 2007, in Gaza City.||Abid Katib/Getty Images|
Students at the prestigious Friends School in Ramallah weren't living up to their school's Quaker values in the fall of 2009. With Abbas increasingly accused of caving in to Israel, Palestinian children took a whole country's frustrations out on his grandson. Grandpa Abbas, they teased the boy, was a traitor.
The snide remarks were nothing short of “political bullying,” recalled Walid Batrawi, a media trainer whose daughter shared a class with Abbas’ grandson. The daughter of Mohammed Dahlan, the Fatah leader in Gaza at the time of the conflict with Hamas, was also pulled out of the same school following political bullying, Batrawi told Al-Monitor.
Abbas went “berserk” when he learned of the taunting, a PLO executive committee member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The Palestinian president withdrew his grandson from the private institution in short order and shipped him off to Jordan to finish his schooling.
The school incident was triggered by Abbas’ decision to postpone UN action on a war crimes investigation into Israel's war in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. The virulent debate over the September 2009 UN report from former South African Judge Richard Goldstone would prove to have far-reaching consequences for Abbas' presidency. Already on the outs with Hamas, the Palestinian leader would cause fractures within his own faction by agreeing to delay — and in effect stall — the inquiry into Operation Cast Lead, which Hamas remembers as the “Gaza Massacre” for the 1,000-plus fighters and civilians killed by Israeli forces over a three-week period.
Under pressure from the United States to contain criticism of Israel on the world stage, Abbas faced an open revolt from Palestinians who felt he was making too many concessions to Western powers while getting too little in return. The experience left Abbas more isolated — and more autocratic — than ever.
“Abbas was unable to tolerate public criticism on the background of the report of Judge Goldstone,” recalled Abed Rabo, who publicly criticized Abbas at the time.
Abbas had always been uncomfortable with the rough-and-tumble of politics. “Abbas' way is different from Arafat; he prefers smaller intimate meetings rather than making speeches to large crowds,” said Shaath. While Arafat would bring his opponents close to him and find ways to co-opt them, “Abbas simply kept his political opponents away and demanded total loyalty from those around him.” The school incident only exacerbated those tendencies, the PLO official told Al-Monitor, prompting the Palestinian leader to further wall himself off from dissenting voices.
Later that year, the man who had ridden to power by promising a democratic alternative to Arafat would abandon any lingering pretense of having a popular mandate. After completing his four years in office, Abbas had already extended his term in January 2009 for a year in order to line up the presidential elections with the parliamentary poll scheduled for January 2010. Hamas objected and the elections never happened. In December 2009, the leadership of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Central Council simply announced an indefinite extension of his term.
Since then, the Abbas government's record on human rights has become an increasing source of concern for Palestinian democrats and the international community. Authorities in Ramallah have imprisoned journalists and activists for criticizing Abbas and enacted presidential decrees that centralize his power. In its latest annual report, Amnesty International criticizes “arbitrary restrictions” on Palestinians' rights, particularly through the July 2017 adoption of an Electronic Crimes Law that permits “the arbitrary detention of journalists, whistle-blowers and others who criticize the authorities online” and calls for lengthy prison terms for “anyone deemed to have disturbed 'public order,' 'national unity' or 'social peace.'”
The crackdown on dissent carried over to the Palestinian National Council meeting this spring. Rather than a show of Palestinian unity in the face of Israeli and US bullying, the confab quickly devolved into a settling of old scores orchestrated by Abbas. Despite his years of service to the PLO, Abed Rabo told Al-Monitor that he wasn't invited because the Palestinian president suspected him of cooperating with renegade Fatah member Dahlan. Political activist and commentator Hamadeh Faraneh, a council member since 1996, told Al-Monitor the Palestinian authorities never asked their Israeli counterparts for the necessary permit he needed to travel from Jordan.
Abbas' gradual descent from liberal democrat to hard-line autocrat hasn't been lost on the Palestinian public. Despite overwhelmingly sharing Abbas' rejection of the Trump administration's peace push, almost two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign, according to a March public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey. The survey concluded in part that “diminished chances for democracy and other concerns cast a shadow of pessimism, frustration and despair over the public, leaving it with no trust in its leadership and very little optimism about the medium or even the long term future.”
|People watch as members of Palestinian security forces march during a rally marking the 50th official anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement, in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 31, 2014.||Reuters/Mohamad Torokman|
Abbas had finally had enough. The war with Hamas in 2007 had shattered any hope of Palestinian unity and tarnished his democratic credentials. A decade later, the betrayal of the two-state solution by the United States and its Arab friends now threatened to ruin his already tattered reputation as a peacemaker.
For all his talk of wanting to strike the “deal of the century,” Trump had consistently favored Israel since his election. The president's settlement-friendly ambassador, David Friedman, boasted that the isolated Palestinians had little choice but to accept pennies on the dollar in a peace deal. With America's Gulf allies far more concerned with containing Iran than achieving justice for the Palestinians, the US administration figured the time was ripe to shove a fire-sale deal down their throat.
The Palestinian president would soon prove the Americans wrong. As Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, sparking international outrage, Abbas embraced his inner Arafat and took on the mantle of Palestinian resistance against what he denounced as the “slap of the century.” Tearing into US policy like never before, he denounced “reprehensible and rejected measures” that amounted to no less than “a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts.” The Jerusalem move, Abbas intoned, represented “a declaration that the United States has withdrawn from playing the role it has played in the past decades in sponsoring the peace process.”
Henceforth, the Palestinians would have nothing more to do with a Trump-led process. “We are opposed to the fact that the US is the only party involved,” Palestinian envoy to Washington Husam Zomlot told Al-Monitor after being recalled to Ramallah following the breakdown of US-Palestinian ties. “We don't mind if the US is part of a five-member international team that can look at our situation in a more fair and balanced way and in accordance with international law.” To that end, Abbas and his team have notably been trying to get Russia and China to play a larger role in resolving the conflict.
“I will not end my life as a traitor.”
Mahmoud Abbas, March 2018
Despite its sharply worded language, Abbas' rupture with the United States over Jerusalem was perhaps just the inevitable culmination of a breakup that had been set in motion years earlier. The peace process had long been teetering as the Israelis occupied more and more land for their settlements while Hamas and other groups opposed to Oslo continued their resistance. By 2012, Abbas took his cause to the United Nations, where the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state (with the United States and Israel opposed).
Now Palestinians had the trappings of a state — a president and prime minister, passports, an Olympic team, even postage stamps — and international symbolic recognition to boot. But the right for the Palestinian Authority to call itself the State of Palestine did nothing to change the lot its citizens still under the boot of the Israeli army.
The last time there had been any semblance of serious peace talks with the Palestinians had been under the Barack Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry did his utmost to keep the two sides at the table between August 2013 and April 2014. But Netanyahu’s government had little reason to compromise, and the talks inevitably fizzled. Thanks to Oslo, Israel had shifted responsibility to the Palestinian Authority for keeping the peace even as it constantly expanded its territorial and economic dominance over the West Bank. Increasingly, the so-called peace process was looking like a sham.
|The Palestinian flag flies beside the flag of the UN after being raised by President Mahmoud Abbas in a ceremony at the UN in New York, Sept. 30, 2015.||Reuters/Andrew Kelly|
By September 2017, Abbas the peacemaker was ready to throw in the towel. If the two-state solution were to fail, the Palestinian leader warned the UN General Assembly, “we will have no choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.” It was a remarkable shift for the man who had signed the Oslo Accord a quarter century earlier. “The policy of [Abbas] was based on striving to secure a just peace for his people and he expected a lot from America and the international community,” Education Minister Sabri Saidam, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, told Al-Monitor. US indifference in the face of continued Israeli settlement expansion, he said, “really disappointed [Abbas], who as a result of the recent Trump move on Jerusalem decided to change the way he thinks and deals with relevant issues.”
But what has been a painful adjustment for the Palestinian leadership is a welcome, if long overdue, change of course for a growing number of residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Sami Awad, executive director of the nonprofit Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem and a nonviolence activist, told Al-Monitor that Abbas’ speech was music to his ears. “I have been against the two-state solution for some time, because I am worried that the Palestinian component of this state will be totally undemocratic, as Israel and the US will give importance to security over democracy.”
Ahmed Abu Artema, the 34-year-old Gazan freelance journalist credited with inspiring this spring’s “Great March of Return,” first pitched the idea of a mass rally at the Gaza border in 2011. The idea went nowhere at the time. Israel, he was told, would inevitably respond with live fire to a show of force by thousands of Palestinians demanding a right of return for the 1948 refugees and their families. Seven years of ever-increasing frustration later, the bloody gambit was considered well worth the cost.
As Israeli snipers gunned down dozens of protesters in the fields of Gaza this spring, Palestinian elders gathered for their National Council conference 60 miles away in Ramallah. Inside their air-conditioned suites, political prognosticators speculated in hushed tones about who would replace the ailing Abbas. Vice President Mahmoud al-Aloul, who lost a son in the second intifada? Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah Central Committee chief who spent 15 years in an Israeli prison for throwing a grenade at an army bus? Perhaps PLO Secretary-General and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat?
The contrasting images of old men in suits squabbling over political crumbs while a younger generation was fighting and dying for their rights offered a jarring juxtaposition to the Palestinians, more than a third of them youngsters under the age of 14 who have lived their whole life under Abbas’ rule. The entire political establishment, outside observers warned, was in imminent risk of terminal irrelevancy. “We need to have a clear strategy that can help us deal with the huge challenges ahead,” said former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, now a visiting professor at Princeton University. “The number-one priority must be to find ways to unify the splintering Palestinian population and leadership.”
With his decision to step away from the deeply flawed peace process in favor of unarmed resistance to Israel, Abbas may yet be able to bridge the gap. As Gazans protested for the right of return and the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement sought to pressure Israel economically by making inroads in Europe and around the world, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki asked the International Criminal Court at The Hague in May to probe alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
The strategy is in many ways a throwback to the pre-PLO era. As far back as 1936, Palestinian Arabs went on a six-month general strike to protest the massive flow of Jewish immigrants into Palestine under the British mandate. Today, a new generation of activists points to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as tangible proof that nonviolent resistance can produce political results.
“The violent deadly response of the Israeli army, as painful as it is, only shows the threat to Israel that nonviolence brings,” said Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American psychologist who founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence — now the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem.
Israel denies that there’s anything nonviolent about the Palestinian resistance. It accuses Hamas of organizing the Great March as cover to dismantle the Gaza border fence and attack Israel.
However one chooses to describe it, Palestinian resistance is once again the order of the day. After a lifetime trying to negotiate peace with Israel, Abbas now appears ready to go down fighting, just like his predecessor Arafat.
“I will not end my life as a traitor,” a defiant Abbas told Fatah leaders in March in rejecting Trump’s forthcoming peace plan. “Nothing will happen against our will.”