Headlines are focusing on the curse Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hurled Monday at senior officials in the Trump administration. According to Abbas, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a “son of a dog.” This came after the Palestinian leader once said about U.S. President Donald Trump: “May your house be destroyed.” But what emerges from Abbas’ speech and the latest developments in the territories is much more worrying.
Abbas is caught in a catch-22. On the one hand, there is the U.S. peace initiative, which he has good reason to think will come to nothing of value. On the other, there is the failed reconciliation process between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The elderly leader escapes his troubles by hurling insults at Americans and imposing further sanctions on the Gaza Strip. His declarations and actions could bring closer a military conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Strip, and continue to destabilize already tense relations with Israel in the West Bank.
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Abbas’ dilemma is tangible. He doesn’t believe the Trump administration can serve as a fair mediator. He is suspicious of Trump's three Jewish representatives involved in peace initiatives in the region (son-in-law Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador Friedman), and he even refuses to meet with administration officials when they show up here. The Palestinian boycott of the administration is total. There’s a joke in the West Bank that the only “Palestinian” Greenblatt met here on his last visit was Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coor dinator of government activities in the territories.
It seems Abbas fears that the Americans (in coordination with the Saudis and with Israeli knowledge) are maneuvering him into what Ariel Sharon used to call the corral – through which cattle pass on their way to the slaughter. The Arab media reported that Majid Faraj, the Palestinian intelligence chief in the West Bank, has recently visited Riyadh and taken a look at one of the drafts of the Trump peace plan, which may be launched as a unilateral initiative if the Palestinians reject it as expected.
Abbas' troubles don’t end there. When Faraj, along with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, arrived to inaugurate a waste-treatment facility in Gaza last week, explosive devices were detonated as their convoy passed and some security guards were wounded. In his speech Monday, Abbas blamed Hamas for that assassination attempt, claimed that Hamas was sabotaging the Egyptian-led reconciliation initiative with Fatah, and threatened to impose further economic sanctions on the Strip.
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This could be a critical development. Even after the PA has gradually cut off the flow of funds to Gaza, it still transfers some 120 million shekels ($34.5 million) to it each month. The slashing of aid from Ramallah coupled with the huge deficit in UNWRA funds (totalling $450 million, though recently some $100 million was raised with great difficulty) and the American threat to completely cut off the oxygen to the UN refugee agency could make life in Gaza unbearable this summer.
Israel’s government is implementing a policy rife with contradictions regarding aid to Gaza. It cheers loudly when Trump threatens UNRWA but sends its envoys all over the world to try to raise funds for projects that will improve Gaza's infrastructure.
But what Hamas chooses to do is no less important. The head of the organization in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, brought his people into the reconciliation process thinking this was the way to make the PA assume the burden of civilian administration in the Strip, while Hamas maintains its military power there. Abbas is now clearly signaling that in his eyes, the Egyptian initiative is bound to fail.
In the past, under quite similar circumstances, Hamas chose to change the agenda dominated by economic hardship and governing difficulties by ratcheting up tensions with Israel. The recent incidents – the assassination attempt against Hamdallah and Faraj, the four explosive devices activated against Israeli troops along the Gaza border – may indicate that Hamas intends to do the same thing now as well.
Meanwhile, preparations have gone on for weeks for the Palestinian protests due to begin on Land Day, March 30, which are expected to include mass marches and encampments near the border. This is a tactical problem, and the army still has enough time to deal with it in an effort to avoid major bloodshed.
The problem lies less in marches and more in the overall strategic reality in the territories. Israeli security officials are concerned about the potential of two parallel processes: a military escalation with Hamas in Gaza and a weakening of security coordination with the PA in the West Bank.