Much Winning: Why Mahmoud Abbas Thinks He’s Beating Trump—and Israel
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S. and Israel are two
countries using political and economic leverage to force him to accept policies
that he finds objectionable—or else risk being completely marginalized. Yet,
Abbas believes that he has so far withstood at least three key challenges
presented by the U.S. and Israel in recent months, and thus he believes he is
scoring political victories. He may not be bringing his people an inch closer to
statehood or bringing them major benefits, but he sees himself as a political
survivor. Leading a movement that historically has been about defiance, he sees
survival as its own reward.
American efforts—and its policy of pressure—could still yield success on the
Palestinian front in resuming meaningful negotiations in the next two years, it
is important to see how Abbas sees the Trump Administration, almost at its
halfway point. Whether one likes Abbas or not, it is important to see how he is
likely to think he is winning when it comes to issues of the last few months.
looking at his scorecard, it is worth starting with the United Nations. U.S.
ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who has just announced her
retirement, led the charge of the Trump Administration to put forward a tough
position on the issues of refugees and aid to the Palestinians. That stance is
popular among many Americans who question whether the United Nations Relief and
Works Agency (UNRWA) is really seeking to solve the Palestinian refugee issue,
but rather seeks
to perpetuate it.
by not putting forward an alternative U.S.
plan for Palestinian humanitarian assistance focused on bona fide American
non-governmental aid groups, while withholding all American
aid to the Palestinian Authority, it has made it easier for
Europeans and Arabs states to galvanize enthusiasm and support for UNRWA. This
was exacerbated by concerns that Palestinian kids in the West Bank and Gaza will
not be able to go to school this fall. Two rounds of emergency appeals,
including one at the time of the opening of the UN General Assembly, equaling
$320 million in pledges for 2018, has covered the deficit that UNRWA has faced,
according to UN officials.
course, the test will be: Will these countries sustain these levels over the
years to come? One senior non-American diplomat confidently declared to me,
“The U.S. withholding
of funding from UNRWA has created a new international equilibrium as
other countries have stepped in. UNRWA has not been crippled and the U.S. has
been marginalized” within the organization.
U.S. hope was that its withdrawal of funds would lead to a shift
in UNRWA’s policy, not least its definition of refugees, but this does not
seem to be the case. Likewise, the U.S. hope that this would pressure
Abbas to change his “no contact” stance vis a vis the Trump
administration has not been borne out either. The U.S. has legitimate reasons to
stop funding UNRWA, but the bottom line is Abbas seems poised to continue to use
UNRWA as a political cudgel, at least for now.
development that Abbas must favor is President Donald Trump’s recent
declaration in which he said for the first time that he favors
the two-state solution, after famously refusing to
publicly endorse the two-state approach since the start of his
the first year of the Trump Administration, Palestinian officials say that Abbas
was concerned that the U.S. would cajole Gulf states like Saudi Arabia into
pressuring him to accept Trump’s peace deal. Those Gulf states may not much
like or respect Abbas—due to an array of grievances with Abbas personally
(including long-standing Emirati anger over Abbas’s feud with Mohammed
Dahlan)—and subsequently have not been generous donors to the Palestinian
Authority. However, that pressure has simply not materialized—and Abbas has
breathed a sigh of relief.
since the visit of
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to the White House in the
spring of this year, the once-fashionable term “outside-in” has lost its
shine. That idea, that parties outside the immediate Israeli-Palestinian circle
Arab backing for a Trump peace plan or even pre-empt them with
ties, has been gradually nixed, as MBS has made it clear that the U.S.
cannot count on the Saudis to twist the arms of the Palestinians. This may have
been the case even if the U.S. had not moved its embassy to Jerusalem, but
certainly Arab officials point to this as a complicating factor.
elements likely to reinforce this dropping of outside Arab pressure on the PA
are the cooling of Saudi-U.S. relations, indicated not least by a public
statement by Trump at a rally to his supporters recently that the Kingdom could
not survive two weeks without the U.S., as well as the recent crisis
surrounding the disappearance and
apparent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal
third area where Abbas feels success is that he has paid no political price for
his indifference to the misery in Gaza. Not only has he not been involved
in securing Qatari funding to increase electricity for Gazans, from four to
eight hours per day until the end of 2018, he has opposed it. He has cut PA aid
strategy has been clear: Make the situation in Gaza more severe in order to
press Hamas into a military confrontation with Israel, which would break the
impasse. This would yield dual benefits. It would militarily weaken his rival, Hamas.
And it would allow Abbas to continue to do what he loves, namely, publicly
blaming Israel as the victimizer. Blaming Israel as the bully is what enables
Abbas to reinforce the Palestinian narrative in Europe as the victim. It is a
cynical move, but it has worked.
has not only not paid
a price for his indifference to Gaza, but he has done so while snubbing Egyptian
mediation and attempts to find a way for the Palestinian Authority to return to
Gaza. For Abbas, Gaza is a trap. In his view, unless Hamas surrenders its guns,
he has the authority and they have the responsibility to improve the miserable
living conditions in Gaza. That understandable position on Hamas disarmament,
however, should be met with a concrete plan by Egypt regarding how to achieve an
objective, but this has not been the case.
whether the issue is UNRWA, the Arabs and Trump, or Gaza, Abbas believes he has
avoided paying political costs in defying the U.S, even if the U.S. has indeed
cut economic aid. Of course, his political maneuverings have not necessarily
helped the Palestinian people. The two-state outcome seems far off. Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition still builds beyond the security
barrier. Moreover, succession for the 83-year-old Abbas is murkier than ever.
common thread between the controversies relating to UNRWA, the role of Arab
states and the status of Gaza is that Abbas measures successes by what did not
happen—namely, by his ability to maintain the situation in these distinct
arenas in a bid to foil the U.S. Sadly, in the Mideast, political survival and
success are too often conflated with strategic gains. The two are not the same.
In the twilight of his life, Abbas has no illusions that he is on the cusp of
strategic success, and therefore consoles himself with these acts of
non-cooperation. But even as the head of a movement whose very self-definition
over many decades is inextricably tied to the idea of defiance of outside
powers, this organizing principle has so far proven to be an insufficient
catalyst to move closer to the goal of statehood.