He may not be charismatic, he may have failed to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state, he may be neck deep in internal intrigue instead of dealing with the big picture. But in the last two years Mahmoud Abbas has earned his place in the front line of leaders whose names will be engraved in history. A leader of a small, battered entity, with no borders, no money, no economy, no army, no connections, no oil, no high tech, no exotic Persian-Gulf aura did what none of the great powers’ leaders dared do: stand up to Donald Trump’s bullying without blinking.
Since Trump was elected president of the United States, various countries’ leaders have been drafting strategies to deal with the White House’s changing whims. Emmanuel Macron chose flattery, which did him no good, and went on to ignoring Trump. Justin Trudeau flexed his muscles for a moment, but ultimately signed a trade deal. Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto simply gave in and left the cleaning up work to his successor. Angela Merkel and Theresa May are waiting for the storm to blow over. Kim Jong Un gave Trump the photo-ops he wanted plus love letters, and is apparently continuing to develop nuclear weapons.
Perhaps because of Abbas’ background in the PLO, and his various wanderings in the world, he realized what leaders of other, polite, civilized states didn’t. As one who hasn’t lived for 50 years in grand palaces, but wandered from country to country, he knows the rules of the street: When extorted, don’t cooperate. Because complying with extortion isn’t the end – it’s only the beginning. When you’re facing a bully, don’t fold. Maybe you’ll get hit, but you may also be standing at the end of the fight.
The Trump administration has stopped at nothing in the last six months to bend Abbas. The administration closed down the Palestinian Authority’s offices in Washington, deported the Palestinian representative to the U.S. and his family, cutback aid to the PA, including funds for hospitals serving Palestinians in East Jerusalem, slashed UNRWA’s budget, and threatened to close a deal with Israel behind the Palestinians’ back.
The great Trump is sitting in Washington exploding because little Abu Mazen doesn’t give a damn. The administration is applying pressure via Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states. All the perks and treats our leaders wait for their whole lives have been taken from Abbas – the trips to Washington, the glittering visits, the receptions, the press conferences. If only he says “yes” to the Trump administration’s demands, he will receive royal treatment like the Saudi royal family: He will get arms deals and be forgiven for murdering journalists.
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But Abbas isn’t giving in. I don’t know if in the long term his strategy is right. Sometimes it’s better to do as Kim Jong Un did with Trump, or as Netanyahu did with Obama – play the game and pass the time without giving up anything until circumstances change. But Abbas did the most moral thing: He showed the limp, feeble, weak world leaders an alternative leadership.
If Theresa May had learned from Abbas, the world would have been in a better place. Today we don’t appreciate it. But history will remember who sucked up and who stood up, who bowed and scraped and who remained upright, who was photographed and who turned his back, and who had the courage to stand up to the tyrannical megalomaniac, the 45th president of the United States.