Analysis

Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration Gives Abbas a Chance to Shake Things Up

Unfortunately, however, change is something that the Palestinian leadership has forgotten how to accomplish

U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Evan Vucci/AP

The American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is an opportunity for the Palestinian leadership to cast off old and fossilized modes of thinking and action that have rendered these leaders incapable of change.

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Will this opportunity be used to undertake an internal process of democratization, first of all to restore relations between an unelected Palestinian elite that has been in power for several decades and the public (not only in the West Bank and in Gaza but in the Palestinian diaspora as well)? The hope is that it will be used to effect change. The concern is that it won’t happen.

When the Palestinian leadership recovers from the shock delivered by the symbolic change in American policy — symbolic, but with explosive potential — it will say that this is a pan-Muslim, a pan-Arab or perhaps a European problem. The leadership would be correct in saying so, of course. The leaders will say that Palestinians are the weakest link in the chain and that they can’t deal with the pyromaniac in the White House on their own.

It might also put another way. The change in the American position enables Palestinian leaders, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, to effect change that will show their people that they haven’t embraced the diplomatic course that depends on economic and security coordination with Israel only to further their own immediate personal and financial interests — and those of entourages close to Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization leadership.

“Personal advancement” has been one of the prevalent explanations for the fact that Abbas has stubbornly evaded the holding of elections, and that, within his Fatah faction, elections have been fixed and dictated from above to an extent that is not openly discussed. For the same reason it is argued that Abbas has been avoiding making changes to his cabinet that would allow it to represent the spectrum of political organizations and not just his own.

After recovering from the shock, Abbas and his people will say, and rightly so, that the change in the American position does not necessarily reflect a failure of the Palestinian diplomatic course but rather the incompetence of reasonable factions within the Republican Party in the United States.

After all, President Trump lashed out at all Muslims, including those in countries whose governments are considered U.S. allies, in addition to assailing the Vatican and Europe. Palestinian leaders will be able to say that Trump’s daring, in breaking with international convention, is not confined to one field.

Just recently, he and the economic and Evangelistic right-wing that he serves and represents chalked up two major victories: an increase in benefits to big business through corporate tax cuts and a Supreme Court ruling that allowed the immediate enforcement of a ban on the entry of citizens from six Muslim countries. As a result, Abbas and his associates will say, there is no connection between the internal Palestinian situation and the international community’s attempts to deal with Trump’s policies.

The diplomatic course — involving symbolic international recognition of a Palestinian state — was paved slowly, and included several encouraging achievements such as acceptance into international institutions and the signing of international conventions. But then it was blocked in its tracks by the United States. The diplomatic course angered Israel, but it is exhausted by now, without having changed the reality on the ground: limited autonomy for the Palestinian Authority, split among disconnected enclaves, while absolving Israel of responsibility despite its being the occupying power. Western countries still confer their seal of approval to an unelected and unloved Palestinian leadership as a result of its commitment to restrain the public and maintain quiet vis-à-vis Israel, and for its willingness to pretend that there is still an ongoing “process” leading to a state. The risks that Trump’s move entail will only buttress Europe’s demand that Abbas and his security forces continue to restrain the Palestinian public in exchange for their continued acceptance as the legitimate leadership.

The United States, a very generous donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency and to the Palestinian security forces, accepted the reality of enclaves long before Trump’s arrival. That was the message behind its financing the upgrading of rural roads, as a substitute to wide and fast highways, but in the process, Israel has blocked access from Palestinian towns and villages for the convenience of West Bank Jewish settlers.

European countries are not absolved, however, from their own responsibility for abetting the reality of the enclaves, through their donations that somewhat moderate the chronic financial crisis caused by Israeli restrictions. But these countries have tried and are trying to help Palestinians remain on their land, taking steps that have not been completed to boycott products from the settlements while declaring that Area C (which is under full Israeli control) is part of the Palestinian state. They are at least aware of their negative role in subsidizing the occupation.

They certainly won’t stop subsidizing it now — through humanitarian assistance to Palestinians — amid a growing sense of an impending explosion. This too will enhance the logic of maintaining the Abbas government as it is now.

The call by Abbas’ Fatah party for three days of rage over the Jerusalem issue with no internal systemic changes is a risky gamble. It endangers the lives and health of hundreds of Palestinian young people, exposing them to mass arrest, and all for nothing. Mainly, however, it might demonstrate that the Palestinian public doesn’t heed calls issued by Fatah and the Palestinian Authority since it doesn’t trust them. The public will instead act at a time and in an manner that suits it.

Instead of hounding anyone who criticizes him on Facebook and silencing critics through an internet law, Abbas and people around him could now take several initial steps to refresh the political system that they have built under the auspices of the Oslo accords. It’s hard to imagine how such a process would look like, as a result of the prolonged ossification of PLO and Palestinian Authority institutions. In any event, it requires the inclusion and active involvement of wide sectors of the population in the thinking and doing phases, something that Fatah and PLO leaders have long forgotten how to do.