Analysis

Abbas' Meeting With Trump Proves the PA Is Strong - Even When It's Weak

The Palestinian leadership knows Trump won't reach a peace agreement, but it allows itself to hope he will end the economic despair

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP

The most important thing about U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the meeting itself. It shows that Trump’s White House considers the Palestinian Authority as an important international factor and a stabilizing regional element. That justifies the smiles on the faces of the Palestinian entourage at the luncheon with the two leaders. As Nasser Laham, editor-in-chief of the news website Ma’an, wrote, criticizing the PA leader’s opponents: “Mahmoud Abbas is among the first 10 leaders received at the White House (since Trump took office) – and this is after he restored ties with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and might be on the way to restoring ties with the Gulf states.”

Officially, the Palestinian Authority is perceived as an essential corridor to the establishment of the Palestinian state. In fact, it is a project that the world supports for the sake of regional stability. And “stability” has become a synonym for the continuation of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank without any serious diplomatic or military implications for Israel, and without major shocks to the positions of Western countries. This is the source of the PA’s strength, even if it is very weak, and Trump apparently understands this.

Trump found it proper to devote many words to the PA security apparatus and security coordination with Israel. At Wednesday’s press conference, Trump said:

We must continue to build our partnership with the Palestinian security forces to counter and defeat terrorism. I also applaud the Palestinian Authority's continued security coordination with Israel. They get along unbelievably well. I had meetings, and at these meetings I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along. They work together beautifully.

The pro-Israel lobby repeatedly urged Trump to talk about payments to Palestinian prisoners and incitement, which he did, according to the White House spokesman. But the lobby forgot to tell him that public praise for security coordination spoils things for Abbas and embarrasses his associates in Fatah. The security coordination – or as some call it, the security services that the PA provides to Israel – is something that is done, not talked about. And indeed, a Hamas leader, Sami Abu Zuhri, already tweeted that such talk proves that the PA is getting economic aid in exchange for fighting the Palestinian opposition.

The new Palestinian ambassador in Washington, Husam Zomlat, a brilliant and well-spoken man who was recently chosen as a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, will have to add one more task to his heavy list – to explain to the White House that security cooperation is part of a package deal full of internal contradictions. The PLO Central Committee decided two years ago to cancel security cooperation with Israel, and if the decision has not been implemented it is because the real decider is man who pays the salaries and is responsible for funding – Abbas. There is a price to pay for the widely unpopular security cooperation. That price is to not stretch things too much with the Fatah rank-and-file, in prison and out, and perhaps Trump’s people have already been told this. Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj, who accompanied Abbas’ entourage, is also a former prisoner, like many of the heads of the Palestinian security forces and district governors who are loyal to Abbas. It will be very hard for them to explain shirking responsibility for the comrades and their families. For the sake of the PA’s stability they can’t allow themselves to cross the line in terms of image that separates “cooperation” from treason.

While Trump and Abbas were meeting, a large rally was taking place for the hunger-striking prisoners in Ramallah’s Nelson Mandela Square. The yellow Fatah flag was prominent, and Fadwa Barghouti read out a letter from her husband, Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader and a prisoner serving five life sentences in Israel. “The Palestinian prisoners have faith that their people will not let them down and will meet loyalty with loyalty and will support the prisoners and their families who have endured sacrifice and hardship and suffering,” the letter read. 

Even if at the beginning there were some who interpreted the hunger strike as solely a Fatah enterprise or as a tool of Barghouti against Abbas, and even if the Israel Prison Service tries to downplay its importance in reports in the Israeli media, on its 18th day, the strike continues to rule headlines. It spurs young Palestinian men to clash with the Israeli army and enables pro-Palestinian activists abroad to hold activities in its support. On Thursday, it was reported that 50 leaders of various Palestinian factions joined the strike. They did not do so before for their own reasons and now they can no longer stand idly by.

In Gaza, Fatah activists sought to link support for the prisoners to support for Abbas on the day of the latter’s meeting with Trump, and as a counterweight to the Hamas-run campaign, “Abbas doesn’t support me.” One day after the publication of a document of principles in which Hamas commits itself to democracy and pluralism, its internal security apparatus quickly arrested the Fatah activists and held up a bus that was taking people to the demonstration. From prison, Barghouti was indeed able to make it clear that Fatah is relevant and even led activists from Gaza, who was usually paralyzed by fear, to dare to act – even for Abbas. 

In the end, Fatah is the backbone of the PA. Abbas maneuvers it well, but is also dependent on it. Zomlat will have that too in Washington, if Israel’s repetitive claims with regard to money to prisoners moves ahead to the stage of demanding the blocking of these payments.

Protesters carry pictures of Abbas during a rally supporting Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Ramallah, West Bank, May 3, 2017.
Nasser Nasser/AP

Trump’s talk of peace and Abbas’ talk of a two-state solution is nice. Abbas certainly knows what he means with every word he utters. But the vision of an independent Palestinian state is receding. And the continuity stability of the PA and its institutions have long since become the primary goal of the Palestinian leadership Abbas heads. From a temporary tool and short-term tool for state-building in a transition period, as was determined in the Oslo Accords, the PA has become a permanent fixture. Even Hamas, in its statement of principles, recognizes the PA’s existence and its function in serving the entire people, although Hamas denies the legality of the Oslo Accords. And for Israel, although it attacks the PA around the clock, the PA is an excellent lightening rod. It holds back the anger of people who get up every morning to reports like the ones published recently; before dawn, the Israel Defense Forces broke into the government hospital in Ramallah and fired rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas; early in the morning, Israeli forces destroyed four houses in the West Bank village of Walaja, where construction work has been renewed on the wall that will cut the village off from its lands, as well as buildings in the neighborhoods of A-Tor and Isawiyah in Jerusalem; on Wednesday, demonstrators were injured while rallying in support of the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in a number of places in the West Bank; Jewish settlers destroyed a Palestinian cistern in El Hader near Bethlehem; and the Israeli navy fired at fishermen in Gaza.

If these reports and experiences don’t lead to a general uprising, it’s not only because the security forces that Trump so highly praises act as a buffer between the Israeli army and the Palestinians. Lacking any other promising leadership and strategy, the PA is perceived as providing essential services to the Palestinians, and it’s not worth risking its existence.

The PA promises comfort and even riches to the circles close to the government, and a kind of economic stability to tens of thousands of civil servants, employees of the security services and recipients of various allowances. This stability is in danger because of the economic difficulties the PA is facing. The donor countries warned again on Thursday of these difficulties in its regular meeting in Brussels. The World Bank once again directly connected the dangerous shrinking of the Palestinian economy to restrictions on movement by the Israelis, control of Area C and a failure to transfer funds to the PA. A World Bank report stated that the Israeli government “can improve the situation of the Palestinian people (especially the youth) by fully implementing existing agreements to facilitate movement and access to resources, and addressing the PA’s claims on losses on revenues.” The report added that high levels of Palestinian unemployment, especially among the youth, “is not in anyone’s interest.”

The money going to the families of Palestinian prisoners is part of a whole array of allowances and fictitious salaries that compensate people for the destruction of the Palestinian economy by Israel and the high rates of unemployment  – 21.7 percent in 2007 and 26.9 percent in 2016. In Gaza alone, unemployment has reached 41 percent. While 53 percent of salaried workers work in the Palestinian private sector (in the West Bank and Gaza), their salaries are lower than those in the public sector. These salaries have even declined in recent years, from an average of 80 shekels ($22) a day to 70 shekels, as reported by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. 

According to Laham, who is close to Abbas’ bureau, observers expect economic revitalization in the coming months. That is apparently an echo of Trump’s promise at the press conference, where he pledged to “discuss my administration's effort to help unlock the potential of the Palestinian people through new economic opportunities,” as part of his administration’s efforts to bring peace.

The Palestinian leadership knows better than Trump that a peace agreement with Israel is farther away than the end of his term. But the leadership allows itself to expect that Trump, a businessman, will understand the severity of Israel’s economic restrictions, and will intervene to soften them. In that, the Palestinians’ reported cautious optimism is not ridiculous.