Abbas’ Cooperation With Israel Sinking Him at Home

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Swearing-in ceremony of the Palestinian unity government. Ramallah, June 2, 2014.Credit: AFP

Since the abduction of the three murdered Israeli youths, the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas among the Palestinian public has reached a new low. The reports of “disputes” that broke out between Abbas and his colleagues at a meeting of the Fatah central committee last week have been denied, but key members of the movement told him they are finding it difficult to represent his positions, and in particular are finding it hard to defend the security coordination with Israel.

Only 10 percent of the Palestinian people support Abbas, a Fatah member who is a resident of a refugee camp and a former prisoner said this week. Nonetheless, at this stage there is no one in the Fatah or Palestine Liberation Organization who is seriously challenging Abbas’ rule and leadership — only his advanced age is doing that. He continues to hold all the authority and political decision-making in his own hands as the “president of the State of Palestine,” the chairman of the PLO and the chairman of Fatah. Official and unofficial spokesmen have been briefed in recent weeks how to check the criticism against Abbas.

The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the East Jerusalem youth murdered by young Jewish terrorists, provided Abbas and the Fatah movement with the opportunity to adapt their approach to that of the general Palestinian public — but both in practice and in principle there has been no change. His critics say he sticks to his diplomacy of appeasement and concessions toward Israel, which is what allows Israel to thwart the two-state solution. So the question remains: How does Abbas manage to continue to impose his positions and prevent the West Bank from burning — like East Jerusalem burns?

Two of his statements in the past two months are quoted time after time — and ridiculed as a sign of the gap between Abbas and his people: One, during his speech to Israeli students, in which he said “security coordination is holy,” and the other in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at the conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, where he criticized the abduction of the three Israeli youths, saying “they are also people.” Palestinians in his movement and outside it complained that he does not display the same emotion and empathy publicly toward his own people who are suffering from attacks by the Israeli army.

The social networks — even Abbas’ official Facebook page — are filled with comments and nasty jokes. (“Shimon Peres asked Gideon Sa’ar to grant Abbas Israeli citizenship.”) A picture of a page from his young grandson’s diplomatic passport was posted on Facebook, on which it lists his profession as “grandson of the president.” “Get out,” they write — like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was told. Just two or three years ago people were arrested for less crude comments against Abbas. It seems the fear barrier has been broken and the Palestinian security services understand they can’t allow themselves to chase after thousands who express their opinions in this fashion.

Two weeks ago hundreds of worshippers in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem attacked Abbas’ favorite, most trusted colleague, former Palestinian Minister of Religious Affairs, now president of the Palestinian Sharia Court, Mahmoud al-Habash, along with his entourage. The official condemnations said his attackers were Hamas and Al Tahrir party activists, Fatah activists told Haaretz that 80 percent of the attackers were Fatah people from Jerusalem. Despite the widespread opposition within Fatah, Abbas insisted for years on leaving Habash in his post as religious affairs (Waqf) minister. During the negotiations over establishing the reconciliation government with Hamas, Hamas objected to leaving Habash — who was born in the Gaza Strip and was formerly a Hamas member — in his position as minister. Instead, Abbas appointed him head of the Sharia Courts while evading the accepted procedures for such an appointment. So the attack on Habash can be interpreted as an internal Fatah attack on Abbas too.

A month ago a recording of what chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said against Abbas in a private conversation was posted on social networking sites. Erekat called Abbas a dictator whose diplomatic path had failed, and because of his promise to the Americans he is not petitioning the International Criminal Court in The Hague. After it was made clear that the recording was not a fake, Erekat was invited to lunch with Abbas and the affair was settled — and the scandal buried. In contrast, the host of a program on prisoners on Palestinian television was fired after she expressed criticism of Abbas.

Official and unofficial spokesmen in Fatah and the PLO are already on message in explaining Abbas’ actions since the abductions. “An unpopular speech that protects the people is preferable to a populist speech that abandons the people” is Fatah’s updated slogan.

In the same spirit, a PLO official told Haaretz that in Abbas’ “speech in Jeddah and in his telephone conversation with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [after the abductions] Abbas wanted to prevent more bloodshed and harm to his people. He only does not know how to pass the message on to the people. He first thinks how to pass the message on to the Americans, after that to the Europeans, after that to Israel, and then to the media, and finally to the Palestinians. In that order.” His old friends say that Abbas has worked since the 1970s to achieve peace between the Palestinian state that will be established and Israel.

Next month the Fatah general assembly is scheduled to take place. The dowry Abbas brings to the gathering includes two political failures over the past six months: The failure to function by the reconciliation government with Hamas, and the blow-up in the latest round of peace negotiations without the release of all the Palestinian prisoners tried before the Oslo Accords. These two failures were to be expected, and many warned Abbas of them in advance. The failures are attributed to him, but still have not changed his position.

A senior Fatah member who has known Abbas for decades told Haaretz: “The problem is that Abbas is sticking to his false hope that the United States will intervene in the end to create a change in Israel and bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state. All that is needed from us, in that case, is to act according to the Americans’ requests, to meet our commitments to them.” In other words, to continue with the security coordination with Israel, not to go to the International Court in The Hague and to prevent escalation, in the expectation that the United States will reward the Palestinians and Abbas.

Abbas has taken pride in the Americans’ lack of opposition to the unity government with Hamas as proof that his path is correct. As opposed to intiial fears, the United States has not stopped its contributions to the Palestinian Authority after the kidnappings and murders of Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. Israel also transferred the monthly customs duties on Palestinian goods, which Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians at Israeli ports, to the Palestinian Ministry of Finance.

One of the explanations of his political power is that Abbas controls the money — to the PLO, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, from the salaries of the most junior police officer to the most veteran member of the PLO council.

Abbas’ approach — keeping the peace as much as possible (with the help of the security services and the security coordination with Israel) — suits the Palestinian middle and upper middle classes. “For the past 25 years we [Fatah] have aided Israel in postponing the decision on ending the occupation,” said the senior Fatah official who called Abbas’ faith in the Americans a “false hope.” Like others, he says only a combination of militant diplomacy and the strategy of an unarmed popular struggle (and many think also without stones and Molotov cocktails) will rescue the Palestinians from the present dead end. But Abbas opposes not only an armed struggle but also a popular, unarmed intifada, on the assumption that as in the past, Israel will repress it with lethal force, kill many Palestinians and in so doing bring about an armed Palestinian response — and the cycle will return.

Therefore the planning of a popular struggle is hollow at this stage, and only increases the danger of an unplanned outbreak — or one planned by Hamas or others — that would overcome the opposition of Abbas and his security forces. The question is not whether this will occur, but only when. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: AP

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