Abbas Got What He Most Needed From Trump: Primacy and Relevance

In the jockeying for position in the scrum of internal Palestinian politics, the Palestinian president's White House visit will pay far more dividends than Hamas' reworded mission, an attempt to have its resistance cake and eat it too

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Palestinians at a Ramallah coffee shop as a television broadcasts the press conference between President Donald Trump with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. May 3, 2017.
Palestinians at a Ramallah coffee shop as a television broadcasts the press conference between President Donald Trump with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. May 3, 2017. Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

For Palestinian politics, this was a busy week. On Monday, Hamas released a new political document that, while not superseding its charter, appeared to concede that its historical approach is not working. On Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Trump at the White House in what was a remarkable optic for Abbas so early on in Trump’s term.

Neither the move made by Hamas or the Abbas visit were primarily about the peace process, but were rather jockeying for position in the scrum of internal Palestinian politics.

Despite the similarities, however, there is one important difference between the dueling approaches, which is that Hamas is using internal moves to strengthen its external position, and Abbas is using external moves to strengthen his internal position.

For Abbas, this was an amazing turnaround in his fortunes. Abbas’s popularity has been waning at home as he is increasingly perceived as an out-of-touch leader who has hung around far past his expiration date, and who has not been able to translate his longevity into tangible accomplishments for the Palestinians or to a wider audience on the world stage.

It did not initially appear as if Abbas was going to get any boost from the Trump White House, which early on reportedly would not provide an address for Palestinian Authority entreaties and appeared to want to avoid the Palestinians entirely. This was supposed to be in contrast to the Obama administration, which took a call from Abbas on the first day in office, and was perceived as tilting toward the Palestinians in many ways. The concern in Ramallah toward the new Trump presidency was palpable in its early days, and the idea that Trump would be felicitous toward Palestinian interests was dismissed.

Yet only a little more than 100 days into Trump’s tenure, Abbas finds himself in the Oval Office and being praised by Trump for working toward peace and denouncing terrorism. While Prime Minister Netanyahu got the Trump White House grand tour first, so far the treatment of the two leaders has been on the same playing field.

Supporters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Ahrar protest against Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. May 2, 2017.Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP

The domestic political benefits for Abbas cannot be overstated, as he will get to coast on the afterglow of being treated as an honored guest by Trump, rather than as an afterthought. Not only that, Abbas had a White House platform to emphasize all of the core Palestinian positions – a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital – while getting an unexpected bonus from Trump as he extolled the virtues of Palestinian security cooperation with Israel.

Not only does Abbas get to look like a strong leader at home who has the ear of the American president, one of his core political weaknesses – the deep unpopularity of security cooperation with the IDF, which Abbas must maintain as it also keeps him in power – was specifically pointed to as a great virtue in the eyes of the man who is now raising expectations that he will be the midwife of an independent Palestine.

There are few things Abbas could do that would give him more breathing room at home than the new relationship he has established with Trump. It will be exceedingly hard for anyone to challenge his primacy or relevance after yesterday’s events, particularly if Trump is reluctant to push him too hard early on.

Hamas’s own political move this week is being driven by a different calculus. Their fortunes have taken an unprecedented hit over the past few years. Hamas, which rules over an increasingly tenuous situation in Gaza, has been squeezed by Egypt due to its Muslim Brotherhood origins, lost an important political ally as it found itself forced to renounce Bashar al-Assad, and has had to navigate tensions with its primary patron, Iran.

White House press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. May 3, 2017. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

All of this is on top of Hamas being very unpopular among Gazans, whose situation under Hamas rule has not improved one iota, and facing competition not only from Fatah but from even more radical challengers. Isolated in the world and unpopular at home, Hamas has been looking to do something to break out of its box, while at the same time it becomes even further split along the dividing lines between the political leadership in Qatar and the military leadership in Gaza. Unlike Abbas, who is using foreign relations to improve his domestic position, Hamas is doing the precise opposite in using domestic moves to improve its foreign relations.

The new policy of accepting a provisional Palestinian state in 1967 borders without giving up the larger fight for the entire land between the river and the sea, and purposely leaving out any mention of Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood origins and ties, is aimed solely at external actors. Hamas’s hope is that by appearing to back down from a previously uncompromising position, it will give cause to those who argue that Hamas’s eventual moderation is inevitable, and will reverse the trend of international isolation on the group.

The silence on the Muslim Brotherhood connection is designed to get back into Egypt’s good graces, which has recently moderated its hardline tack toward Hamas I recognition of its shared interest with Hamas in stamping out ISIS in Sinai and other radical jihadi groups beginning to challenge Hamas’s primacy in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood is the Sisi regime’s brightest redline, and Hamas views muddying its own links to the Muslim Brotherhood as the key to better footing with Egypt.

The question is whether these moves will actually fool anyone, as they do not represent real change within Hamas, but are akin to putting lipstick on a pig. When the PLO faced the same dilemma a quarter century ago, it actually recognized Israel and nullified the problematic provisions in its charter, as opposed to Hamas’s laughable attempt to have its resistance cake and eat it too.

Hamas hasn't changed: Its reworded mission is an attempt to have its resistance cake and eat it too. Hamas' Political Bureau chief Khaled Meshal with the new policy document in Doha. May 1, 2017Credit: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

Hamas’s continued terrorism will not be overridden by a change in rhetoric away from demonizing Jews and toward only demonizing “Zionist war criminals,” particularly when its odious anti-Semitic charter is still in full effect. Hamas also runs a real risk that this will further weaken it at home, as its resistance credentials can now be called into question by even more intransigent actors. Indeed it is no accident that the rollout of the new document took place in Doha rather than in Gaza. Those who already support Hamas are unlikely to be happy with the new changes, no matter how illusory they are, and those who don’t are unlikely to be convinced that this represents a new and improved movement.

Abbas and Hamas are both betting that this week’s events give them momentum, but only one of them is likely to see any real benefits. If nothing else, the contrast between Abbas being feted in Washington, while Hamas pretends to back away from its ledge in order to survive, will provide a lasting image of fortunes that are for now traveling in opposite directions.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @mkoplow

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