The resounding silence from Ramallah in the past two days reflects the difficult position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the fact that things can change so quickly for him.
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Only last week Abbas was in Egypt, where he met with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, fresh off the announcement of the Palestinian reconciliation and a wave of international support. From Cairo, Abbas went on to the Vatican and a joint prayer service with President Shimon Peres and Pope Francis, to the chagrin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When Abbas returned, he hoped to focus on preparations for a festive visit to the Gaza Strip later this month, in the run-up to Ramadan. He would also tackle Gaza’s government payroll crisis and seek to reopen the Rafah border crossing. The new normal, or so he thought.
Thursday’s presumed abduction of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank shuffled the deck completely for the Palestinians. Netanyahu wasted little time before blaming Abbas for the incident and dispatched security forces to the West Bank. He didn’t give the PA — which in any event has no real sovereignty; even its traffic cops were nowhere to be seen — a chance to denounce the operation.
But Abbas is in a bind on his side of the Green Line, too. He has little to show after nine months of negotiations with Israel except support from the international community. He is criticized by the Palestinian public for not doing enough for the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners and administrative detainees in Israeli prisons, now in its 53rd day. Meanwhile, his goals are unclear.
If it turns out the students were abducted for ransom in the form of concessions from Israel, it will be applauded by the Palestinian public, and Abbas will find it hard to express displeasure. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made clear they expect a reward in exchange for the abductees’ release.
If all this weren’t enough, Palestinian complaints about the PA’s security coordination with Israel — coordination the Muqata recently declared “sacred,” will only increase. This will be used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian public to goad Abbas.
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If the three teens are released with PA assistance and no quid pro quo, it will be seen in the West Bank as a cozying up to Israel, even a betrayal of the Palestinian prisoners and detainees. The fact that Abbas has not yet conveyed a clear message, instead sending aides and associates to address the media, points to the trap he’s in.
Though the PA has promised it will do all it can to find the missing teens, Ramallah keeps stressing that they were in Area C, under exclusive Israeli control. Therefore, Abbas’ people say, Israel can’t complain about the PA, which in recent years has done much to frustrate planned abductions and return Israelis who wandered into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank.
In addition, officials speaking on Abbas’ behalf don’t forget to mention the hunger strike, in an effort to cover all the bases, even if the connection is fuzzy.
Abbas must now decide between the support of the international community, even in the absence of progress in the negotiations with Israel, and the support of the Palestinian public. Just days after praying for peace in the Vatican, he must now pray that the abduction doesn't destroy everything he has worked for.