Listen to Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, West Bank, February 20, 2019.

The personal announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a conference of Palestinian leaders on July 26, about ceasing to abide by all signed agreements with Israel, may be just another in a series of empty declarations. But historical processes have a pace and a timing of their own, along with stations along the way that eventually lead to a point where all the rules are broken.

Abbas has been president of the PA since 2005 and has conducted his battle with the State of Israel primarily via political, diplomatic and legal channels. Despite previous declarations about his intention to overturn political, economic and security agreements with Israel, Abbas is still not calling it quits.

“A solution of the problems by peaceful means through agreements and honoring laws is far preferable to firing missiles and bringing the world down to the brink of a major war,” Abbas told foreign correspondents. “We still believe in peace and are trying to achieve it based on international decisions relating to the peace process, and in particular the 2002 Arab peace initiative,” he told participants at the most recent Islamic summit conference, which convened in June in Mecca.

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Abbas prefers to solve the conflict by peaceful means and to refrain from annulling agreements with Israel, in the realization that such a step is likely to lead to a dismantling of the PA, a transfer of control in the West Bank to Israel, and a difficult and unforgivable regression in the status of the Fatah movement as the leader of the national liberation struggle. But Abbas can neither ignore the gloomy mood prevailing in Palestinian society, the Palestinian security services and Fatah, including its youth movement (Shabiba), nor the growing criticism against corruption in the PA.

The unusual clashes between Israel Defense Forces units and Palestinian security services in Nablus, in Area H1 (in Hebron) and in the West Bank village of Bnei Naim, one of which involved an exchange of fire; the support Fatah has given to the nighttime defense committees that act to stop incitement by settlers; and the legitimacy granted by Palestinian security forces to the increasingly extremist rhetoric of the Shabiba and to the return of the terminology of the 1968 Palestinian National Charter – all this attests to the fact that something bad is happening in Fatah, and not necessarily out of choice, but rather mainly due to humiliation and shame.

Abbas cannot permit himself to change the principle of “land for peace” to “economic prosperity for peace” (the Bahrain conference and U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century”); nor can he admit that Palestinian prisoners and shahids (martyrs) are terrorists rather than freedom fighters, or reduce the financial assistance given to their families; nor can he show restraint in the face of the humiliation that he and the PA endure from Israel when it violates Palestinian sovereignty in Area A (i.e., searches for wanted men and home demolitions in locales administered by the PA). If he does all that, he can be expected to lose the little that is left of his people’s confidence in him.

The PA president is well aware of the findings of the latest opinion poll by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, in June, which indicate that 80 percent of the Palestinian respondents residing in the West Bank believe that PA institutions are corrupt; 50 percent are not satisfied with Abbas’ functioning; 49.4 percent want him to resign; and 42.5 percent would vote for jailed political leader Marwan Barghouti, as opposed to 23.2 percent for Abbas, if a presidential election were to be held.

Abbas has often admitted that he would prefer a partner on the Israeli side like former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Olmert, but in the political situation that has arisen in Israel after the Knesset election last April, there is no certainty that he will be able to find the imaginary partner he is seeking. Nor can he continue to recount his problems to Arab and Western leaders – because they have stopped believing his declarations of peace, and consider him more of a burden than an opportunity.

For lack of choice, Abbas is beginning to seek a solution at home; he is renewing reconciliation efforts with Hamas in order to form a national unity government and to formulate a single, clear diplomatic strategy against Israel. Publication of his declaration about canceling the agreements with Israel only five days after a Hamas delegation paid a visit to Iran is apparently no coincidence, and was designed to pressure Hamas into reconciling with Abbas in order to pressure Israel to reach a diplomatic arrangement with him.

Abbas is hinting to moderate Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip (Yahya Sinwar) and in Qatar (Khaled Meshal) that they should hasten to reconcile with him before he is forced to give up control in the West Bank and the possibility of connecting it to the Strip, and before deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and the Iranians lead Hamas into a military confrontation, which would drag Israel into Gaza and lead to the final collapse of Hamas rule.

Abbas is hinting to Israel that it would do well to achieve a diplomatic arrangement with him, because if not – Israel will be forced to deal by itself with the terror that will emanate from the West Bank and to bear the sort of heavy security and economic burden from which it was released in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo Accords.

The president’s declaration is a milestone, and even if it isn’t the last one – it is similar to earlier declarations. The more they multiply, the smaller the distance from the breaking point. This time the announcement came from Abbas rather than from Palestine Liberation Organization institutions, and that may signal that there is a limit even to his and Fatah’s patience.

Dr. Ronit Marzan is a researcher of Palestinian society and politics, at the Chaikin Geostrategy Institute and in the political science department of the University of Haifa.