RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority (PA) is going through a challenging period amid a decline in its popularity for several reasons, notably the postponement of the general elections, the killing of government critic Nizar Banat and the attack on freedoms.
As part of efforts to restore its image, the PA has been trying to attract the world and local attention once again, as was the case with President Mahmoud Abbas’ virtual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, in which he gave Israel one year to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967.
A huge media campaign preceded the speech promoting it as a pivotal address with great significance. But the speech seemed general and vague, despite the threat for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
Abbas said the PLO will no longer recognize Israel based on the pre-1967 borders if it does not withdraw from Palestinian territories within a year, threatening to return to UN Security Council Resolution 181 related to the partition of Palestine, and adopting the one-state solution in light of the failure to the two-state solution.
Despite the deadline he set, Abbas appeared in his speech to be sticking to the negotiations with Israel, noting that some Israeli leaders refuse to deal with him, a jab at Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s statements in which he said that there was no reason for him to meet with the Palestinian president — once again rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Abbas’ ultimatum does not appear to be serious, given the PA’s lack of options or vision regarding any step it might take after the end of the year’s deadline. The PA is not prepared for the consequences of any of the decisions it threatened to make.
In February 2019, the PA refused to receive the clearance funds from Israel, but eight months later it reversed its decision.
Also, in May 2020, the PA decided to end security coordination with Israel, prompting the latter to halt civil coordination. In November 2020, the PA went back on its decision and resumed security coordination with Israel.
Abbas’ ultimatum appears as a message to the new US administration, which the PA is growing frustrated with, especially after US President Joe Biden refused to meet with Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. The US administration also said it would not pressure Bennett’s government on the Palestinian issue.
Muhammad Jawabra, a student at Birzeit University, told Al-Monitor that Abbas’ speech at the UN was a repetition of his previous addresses, and his threat to Israel is empty and meaningless because he does not have the means to carry out such a threat.
“The PA’s relations with Israel are intertwined and deep and he cannot make any decision to cut them,” he said.
Shaza al-Haj Hassan, another student, told Al-Monitor, “President Abbas’ ultimatum for Israel is nothing but an attempt to gain time and some popularity in the Palestinian street, which is discontented with the PA and its policies, especially with the recent arrests and attacks against citizens.”
Aymen Youssef, political science professor at the Arab American University, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas’ threat at the UN meeting only scratches the surface, and it could be just a way to vent in the media.”
He said, “It is not possible to threaten Israel amid the miserable state of internal division [in Palestine] at the political and geographical levels, and amid problems related to human rights, the lack of national harmony and the inability to build a [political] system that can withstand any challenges. All these are necessary requirements, but they do not exist."
In the meantime, the PA is seeking to move things when it comes to its ties with Israel since Bennett came to office, by intensifying meetings with political figures, Israeli ministers and parties, the most recent of which was the Oct. 3 meeting between Abbas and a delegation from the Israeli Meretz party in Ramallah.
The delegation was headed by Nitzan Horowitz, Meretz party leader and health minister, and included Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Freij and Knesset member Michal Rosen.
Abbas, along with the Meretz party delegation, extended an invitation to Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to visit him in Ramallah. But the latter replied in a tweet Oct. 3, saying, “This is not going to happen. I will not meet with someone who denies the Holocaust, is suing IDF soldiers at The Hague and is paying the murders of Jews. Good night.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met Abbas in Ramallah on Aug. 30.
Before that, unofficial Palestinian-Israeli meetings were held, most importantly a Sept. 23 meeting that included Abbas' adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, Mahmoud al-Habbash; presidential spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh; and member of the Fatah Central Committee and head of the Committee for Communication with Israeli Society, Mohammad al-Madani. From the Israeli side, the meeting included several political figures, most notably Ofer Pines and Yossi Beilin. The attendees discussed the two-state solution.
Commenting on Abbas’ intensified meetings with the Israeli side, Youssef said the president “is trying to test the waters with the Israeli government by meeting with some ministers affiliated with the left or center in Israel, in a bid to up the pressure on the axis of [Foreign Affairs Minister Yair] Lapid and Bennett. I don’t think this strategy will work out because of the nature of the Israeli coalition.”
He added that despite the fragility of the Israeli government coalition, it is in line with broad policies based on support for the Israeli army and settlements, and confrontation with the Palestinians.
“Parties like Meretz and Arab Joint List will not affect the Israeli government’s general policies. The PA wants to send a message to the Israelis that the current government coalition is refusing to meet with Abbas and that the Palestinians have other options. It is also a message to the international community that Abbas is a man of peace and he does not hesitate to meet with Israelis,” Youssef concluded.