Abbas Is Walking a Tightrope

Palestinian president is stuck between his commitments to Israel and the United States, and the demands by Hamas and the Palestinian public.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
Palestinian President Abbas speaking in Ramallah about setting up a fund for East Jerusalem residents.
Palestinian President Abbas speaking in Ramallah about setting up a fund for East Jerusalem residents. Credit: AP
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

The resuscitation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the “reconciliation” between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization was seemingly the obvious way to pressure Israel into serious negotiations. But in the absence of Israeli will to do so, Abbas could find himself in a chute, like cattle heading to the slaughterhouse, being led to an agreement and a round of violence against his will — unless the Americans cancel their self-imposed time-out.

For months Abbas has witnessed the weakness of Hamas, which is crying over its historic decision in 2006 to go up for election and even to win. It no longer has the support of Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Morsi’s Egypt, as a result of the changes they, and especially Egypt, have undergone. This, together with the frustrating realization that it cannot continue to rule while also continuing its military resistance to Israel. For Hamas the unity government with Abbas’ Fatah is an escape by which it can relinquish responsibility for managing the Gaza Strip’s “troubles,” chief among them paying salaries and ending the electricity and water crises.

Abbas — who seeks to use the reconciliation with Hamas to bring Israel back to the negotiations over borders, while also obtaining the release of Palestinian prisoners, the suspension of construction in the settlements and greater U.S. involvement in the talks — does not intend to obey the dictates of Hamas in order to achieve this.

Over the past week Abbas has set conditions aimed at thwarting the move, or in the event that is impossible to at least exact a steep price from Hamas. While Hamas insists that the unity government will not recognize Israel, that the entry of Hamas into the PLO will enable the establishment of new international ties and that Hamas can retain its military might, Abbas has declared that the “unity government will be a government of independent technocrats that will not be appointed by the organizations, will recognize Israel, will renounce terror and will honor international agreements.”

Abbas has yet to issue the presidential order to begin consultations toward forming the government. In addition, the head of the Fatah delegation to the talks in Gaza, Azzam al-Ahmad, did not convene a media conference after his meetings this week.

In taking all these steps, Abbas is walking on a tightrope. He could find himself wishing for the renewal of the negotiations, while Israel and the United States are busy with their own affairs. It will be difficult to explain to the Palestinian public — which has been demanding a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation for a long time, and Abbas has been the main obstacle to its achievement — why he is not completing the process.

Even if the reconciliation is completed, allowing Abbas to return to the United Nations as the representative of all the Palestinians living within “Palestine’s 1967 borders,” recognized as a state; so as to confirm its membership in the UN — the likelihood of obtaining this approval in the absence of a dramatic change in the position of Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist organization, is slim.

In the absence of other options, Abbas could very well be dragged into acting against his own statements and positions, which reject violence, and expanding the crack that appeared this week in the form of his statement that “Palestinian security forces did not make any mistake in regard to their security commitments. Every military operation against the Israeli settlers or the Israel Defense Forces occurred outside of the areas under our control.” In other words, Abbas is artificially limiting his responsibility and playing dumb as to Area A and possibly also Area B, areas that under the Oslo Accords were under full Palestinian control and Israeli security control, respectively — even though terror attacks in Area C were perpetrated by Palestinians from these areas.

This scenario would not serve the parties, with the exception of those who see in violence justification for their policies and an opportunity to achieve their goals with force. The rounds of violence of the past two decades have shown that this did not happen, and the sides were forced to agree to the American proposal and return to the negotiating table. We can hope that the Americans will be wise enough to present their offer before the violence breaks out.

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