Analysis / Palestinians Unlikely to Break Security Ties With Israel Over Official’s Death

Mahmoud Abbas says 'popular resistance' should continue in all its forms, but declined to say what steps the Palestinian Authority would take.

Zvi Bar'el
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Abbas holds up a picture of Palestinian offical Ziad Abu Ein during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, December 10, 2014.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

To continue security cooperation with Israel or end it – that is the question that has been preoccupying the Palestinian leadership for the last two days. It’s a difficult dilemma, which explains why the decision has been delayed.

At a meeting of the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet on Wednesday, following the death of Minister Ziad Abu Ein, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said that “popular resistance” should continue in all its forms, but declined to say what steps the PA would take. Prior to Thursday’s cabinet meeting on the same subject, Abbas spoke by phone with both King Abdullah of Jordan and senior American officials. The latter demanded that he not halt security cooperation, and this demand was apparently augmented by Egyptian pressure, as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi supports the PA-Israeli working relationship.

Yet on the other hand, Abbas will have trouble ignoring the public pressure to end security coordination with Israel. Senior Palestinian officials like Jibril Rajoub and Mustafa Barghouti also support cutting security ties.

The dilemma is also connected to Abbas’ diplomatic initiatives, first and foremost his demand that the UN Security Council set a deadline for ending the occupation. He hinted at this when he said the Palestinian response to Abu Ein’s “murder” must be weighed judiciously, and that the wider implications of the decision must be taken into account.

Earlier this week, before Abu Ein’s death, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that if the United Nations rejects the PA’s demand to set a deadline for ending the occupation, the PA would join the International Criminal Court “that same day.” This is the stick Abbas is brandishing to secure international acquiescence to the PA’s demands, so he wants to reserve this step for a more important strategic purpose than responding to the death of a minister.

But to convince the Security Council and avoid playing into the hands of Jerusalem and Washington, which both oppose his UN bid, Abbas must demonstrate his willingness to be a “responsible neighbor” – in other words, to continue security cooperation with Israel. Absent such cooperation, he will have trouble convincing not just America, but also European countries to support him in the council.

It’s not yet clear how Washington will respond to the PA initiative. Its options range from vetoing the Palestinian resolution to backing a softer version drafted by France. But according to American sources, Washington understands that it can no longer completely reject the Palestinians’ demands if it wants to maintain the Arab coalition that is helping the West fight Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

The need to maintain this coalition is a card that has luckily fallen into Abbas’ hand. But freezing or cancelling security cooperation with Israel could significantly reduce the value of this card, especially given Israel’s accusations that Abbas is inciting to violence and inspiring the recent spate of terror attacks in the best case, or is himself a terrorist in the worst case.

In response to this claim, Washington and its allies have pointed to the close security cooperation with Israel as proof that not only isn’t Abbas a terrorist, but he constitutes an integral part of Israel’s security. That’s another reason why Palestinian sources say they expect him to refrain from halting the security cooperation, and instead to take other measures to assuage the public and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership.

Abbas and his cabinet are expected to discuss the issue once again Friday in an effort to find a solution to the dilemma. But a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, a key organ of Abbas’ Fatah party, warned Thursday that “diplomatic logic doesn’t always dictate events. It would be enough for a similar incident to happen today or tomorrow to upend this logic. After all, had it not been for Abu Ein’s death, the issue of security cooperation would never even have arisen.”