Abbas’ third intifada trap Yaron Friedman/ Ynetnews/Published: 11.16.14/Israel Opinion
Analysis: By supporting popular struggle, Palestinian president risks losing control over West Bank. Therefore, he must continue security cooperation with Israel, undermining his legitimacy among his people. Can he have it both ways?Mahmoud Abbas is already 79 years old. The rise to presidency of the man with the misleading appearance of a loveable grandfather raised hopes in the hearts of supporters of the peace process. But the higher the hopes, the greater the disappointment.
Last week, the Palestinians marked 10 years since the death of PLO leader and Fatah founder Yasser Arafat. These were also 10 years of failure for Abbas’ attempts to reach an agreement based on the 1967 borders.
Today, it is clear that Abbas does not possess Arafat’s abilities to lead the Palestinian people to peace or war. After he witnessed both the failure of the “armed struggle” of his rivals in Hamas and the failure of his negotiations with Israel, the following question is raised: What choices is Abbas left with? Won’t an appeal to the United Nations or International Criminal Court worsen his situation? The Palestinian leadership is caught in a trap.
Lived through Palestinian history
Abbas himself has lived through almost the entire Palestinian history. At the age of 13 he experienced the 1948 war, and his family fled Safed and settled in Damascus. He devoted his time to his studies while showing a growing interest in the Zionist Movement.
After studying at the Damascus and Cairo universities, he arrived in Moscow to write his thesis about what he called “the secret link between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Movement.” Later on, he wrote another doctoral thesis on Zionist history. His research in Moscow about the “Zionist enemy” was published in Arabic.
He became part of the educational system in Qatar thanks to his academic abilities, and joined Fatah in the late 1960s.
Although he belonged to the first generation of Fatah, he resided in Damascus and did not participate in the organization’s terroristic struggle from Jordan until 1970 and from Lebanon until 1982. Abbas worked to recruit young people to the organization from Qatar and Syria and then served as the PLO’s administration and finance manager. He slowly climbed up the organizational ladder until he became Fatah’s No. 2 after Arafat, mostly due to the assassination of Fatah co-founder Abu Jihad by the Israeli Mossad in the 1980s.
Due to his expertise on the “Zionist enemy,” he was put in charge of the negotiations with Israel ahead of the Oslo Agreements in the 1990s. Arafat did not let Abbas work when he was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, leading to his resignation. Only in 2005, after Arafat’s death, Abbas was elected president, a position he holds till this very day.
Unpopular among his people
As an academic and an administration and finance manager, it’s only natural that Abbas was not associated with the Palestinian popular struggle and was never particularly liked on the Palestinian street. His popularity also suffered due to his association with the talks with Israel.
Many Palestinians today, not only in Hamas, see Abbas as a puppet of the United States and Israel. His declarations against violence and in favor of the peace process have gained him a lot of popularity in the West and among left-wing circles in Israel, but not among his own people.
Commentators on the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen network estimated recently that a third intifada does not have much of a chance of succeeding, although a national-religious uprising is beginning in the territories and among Israel’s Arabs.
Unlike the first intifada in 1987 and the second in 2000, however, today’s Palestinian leadership is incapable of leveraging the uprising to advance an overall struggle against Israel under its command, as it has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
Moreover, Abbas has already lost control over the Gaza Strip in the Hamas upheaval in 2007. A third intifada may cause him to lose control of the West Bank as well. Therefore, whether he is interested or not, Abbas must continue the security cooperation with Israel, although it is perceived by the Palestinians as an act of betrayal.
He is caught in an equation of survival at the cost of losing legitimacy or supporting the Palestinian struggle at the cost of losing the leadership in favor of his rivals. Is there any way he can still have both legitimacy and a struggle?
Abbas’ despair of the futile negotiations with the Israeli government on the one hand, and his reluctance to adopt Hamas’ failed actions on the other hand, have led him to the third option: A diplomatic struggle against Israel.
The appeal to the UN to recognize a Palestinian state and force Israel to accept the solution of withdrawing to the 1967 lines is unpractical due to the American veto power. Although Western Europe has begun recognizing a Palestinian state (recently in Sweden and now in Spain), with the lack of Israeli cooperation this move only carries a symbolic meaning.
The other option is turning to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in order to accuse Israel of committing crimes against the Palestinian people during the IDF’s military operation. This way, Abbas will be able to claim that he is joining the Gaza residents’ struggle despite his criticism against Hamas’ actions during Operation Protective Edge.
The appeal to the ICC may get Qatar and Turkey in trouble over their support for Hamas. Such a legal claim will lead to cross action on the Israeli side against Hamas for firing missiles at a civilian population, and a criminal commission of inquiry may summon Hamas’ leaders. As a result, there will be pressure to turn in Hamas’ political bureau chief, Khaled Mashal, who currently resides in Doha, and Sheikh Saleh al-Arouri, a founder of Hamas’s military wing, who is taking refuge in Ankara.
Not only will Qatar and Turkey be seen as sponsoring terrorist leaders, but an investigation will be launched into the transfer of funds from these countries to Hamas. Such an investigation could also uncover the transfer of funds to other Islamic terror organizations like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki referred to an ICC appeal a “double-edged sword.”
The bilateral channel between Israel and the Palestinians has been failing time and again for more than 20 years since the Oslo Agreements. The current terror crisis in the Middle East (with ISIS and its branches) and the Shiite threat (from Iran and its allies) are creating joint interests for Israel and the moderate Sunni axis.
An opportunity is being created for a multilateral channel in which Israel and the Palestinians will negotiate as part of a comprehensive agreement with other Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and maybe even north African countries (excluding Libya).
The success of Friday’s talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, which helped calm the situation down and allowed unrestricted Muslim access to the Temple Mount, points to the potential of Arab states’ mediation. The end of the crisis with Hamas this summer was also made possible thanks to the Egyptian government’s help.
Abbas has no options left, and his government is caught in a trap. He is afraid of an intifada, afraid to get Turkey and Qatar in trouble at the ICC and afraid to repeatedly face an American veto and the UN and undermine his relations with the American administration. But continuing the security cooperation with Israel without an agreement undermines his legitimacy in the eyes of his people.
The US and Europe are busy in other arenas right now, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the Palestinian issue is being pushed aside.
With the absence of an Israeli initiative to launch the multilateral negotiations, the stalemate continues. Abbas is incapable of forcing his authority on Gaza and is incapable of dealing with Hamas. There is a high probability that his survival in the West Bank depends on the IDF’s control and that the Israeli presence it is the only thing preventing a Hamas upheaval.
Abbas has no control over the Palestinians, he is not holding negotiations and his achievements in the international arena are purely symbolic. Hamas, on the other hand, is popular and can force agreements. Hamas can and doesn’t want to, while Abbas wants to but can’t.
Arafat is the only person who combined both abilities. He was in favor of combining the armed struggle with the dialogue and zigzagged between terror and negotiations. Abbas took the terror attacks off the agenda, but his diplomatic efforts have failed so far.
Israel and the new Middle East
The ball is now in Israel’s court. The government must decide whether to take advantage of the last years of Abbas’ control of the Palestinian Authority and launch negotiations which might yield a solution to the conflict and pave the way to regional peace, or keep things the way they are and avoid taking risks at a time when the Middle East is experiencing swift and radical changes. Should it act or should it wait?
It all depends on the key issues: Will Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt survive and continue the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood? If it will, will that make Hamas weaker? With the absence of an alternative to the Hams rule, will organizations affiliated with ISIS gain strength in Gaza? Will Hamas’ weakness strengthen Abbas? Will the Saudi kingdom survive the terror within it and on its borders (the Sunni ISIS and the Shiite Houthi rebels) and continue to support Abbas and the Egyptian regime? Will Iran continue making progress towards a nuclear program? And if it will, will that bring Saudi Arabia closer to Israel?
The answer to all these questions appears to be yes. That raises the last question: Is Israel willing to pay the price?