Both Trump and Netanyahu had hoped to sideline the Palestinian leader. But with Bibi plagued by scandal after scandal, Abbas is now back in control.
By Menachem Klein
Mahmoud Abbas should send two bouquets of flowers: one to Israeli Police Chief Roni Alsheikh, and one to Shlomo Filber, currently a state’s witness in a corruption case that may implicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Alsheikh and Filber have turned Netanyahu into a lame duck on his shameful journey out of Israeli politics. In doing so, they also foiled the “deal of the century” that Trump intended to present to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this coming spring. According to leaked information, Trump would allow Abbas to negotiate not over details of the deal itself, but only over its implementation. The “deal of the century” was planned in coordination with Netanyahu’s administration.
In contrast to previous administrations, which made clear their commitment to international law and UN resolutions, the Trump White House has, for the most part, ignored these commitments, which in the past allowed the Palestinians to accept the U.S. as broker in the peace talks, despite its clear support for the Israel side. These express commitments created a legal and international framework that also provided support for the Palestinian position.
After declaring that the matter of Jerusalem was no longer up for debate, Trump worked to remove the issue of Palestinian refugees from the agenda by cutting financial support for UNRWA. The assumption was that by weakening UNRWA, or even forcing it to close, the question of the Palestinian refugees would disappear. Responsibility for the Palestinian refugees would instead be transferred to the UN commission on refugees, which deals with an array of human tragedies around the globe. And anyway, the situations of refugees in Syria, Iraq, and Myanmar are far worse; the Palestinian refugees would fall at the bottom of the list. Without an international agency or body to deal with them, Washington and Jerusalem assumed the Palestinian refugees would simply disappear.
That’s not all. The talks between Jerusalem and Washington dealt with other matters regarding a final-status agreement, including security arrangements that would severely compromise Palestinian sovereignty: keeping the Jordan Valley in Israeli hands for many more years, while permitting settlement expansion there; annexing to Israel numerous settlements located in the middle of the West Bank without any territorial compensation to the Palestinians; and, of course, keeping the Gaza Strip disconnected from the West Bank.
It appears that the White House and the Netanyahu administration did not agree on the dimensions of annexation, which include, roughly, annexing most of Area C to Israel; what remains will go to the Palestinians. This fits with what Netanyahu has in the past called a “state-minus” for the Palestinians, on some 40 percent of the territory in the West Bank. In exchange, Abbas will receive generous financial assistance from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which could perhaps set the Palestinian statelet on stable footing.
The Trump administration has enlisted Saudi Arabia and Egypt into pressuring Abbas to accept the American dictates. The Saudi crown prince and the Egyptian president made it clear to Abbas that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is now all but dead, and that Abbas would be better off taking what is offered now, with the hopes that one day the regional balance of power will shift and he will be able to realize his dream of establishing a fully sovereign state on the basis of the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem. Egypt and the Saudis feel threatened by Iran and want help from Israel and the U.S. to combat the threat. The Palestinians will have to wait.
To oppose the threat of the American plan, taken by Abbas to be a serious threat, the Palestinian leader has transformed into a kind of serial policy initiator — something he has not been for many years. He permitted the Fatah establishment to organize Days of Rage and demonstrations against Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. He spoke forcefully at the conference of Arab foreign ministers and at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He called a meeting of the PLO Central Committee, where he delivered a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was no longer an honest broker, emphasized the Palestinian historic narrative as opposed to that of Israel, and stressed Jerusalem’s Palestinian-Islamic identity. Official radio broadcasts emphasized Jerusalem’s Palestinian and Muslim identity, while the entirety of the Al-Azhar conference was broadcast live. Abbas used all these to enlist support and increase national unity at home by emphasizing the conflict with the U.S.
To a large extent, Abbas succeeded. Criticism of him inside Fatah and by Hamas is less strident than it was in the past, and Hamas has permitted Gaza residents to face-off with IDF soldiers along the border fence with Israel in a manner similar to the protests taking place across the West Bank.
Abbas then announced his commitment to negotiations and shopped around for new mediators. He asked the presidents of China, France, and Russia and the heads of the EU not to leave him alone in the negotiation room with the U.S. and Israel. But his hopes were dashed. Everyone Abbas asked recommended that he wait until the Americans had presented their plan, and not to reject it without seeing it. They also made it clear that they do not intend to enter into a spat with the Trump administration on the Palestinian question. They have more urgent problems to deal with.
And yet, Abbas did not give up. He appeared before the UN Security Council last week and presented a peace plan that he saw as a response to Trump’s deal of the century, thus hoping to disrupt the Americans’ plan. Trump’s deal is no longer the only peace plan in town. The details of Abbas’ plan, however, are not new — they match the positions held by Abbas and the PLO for many years now. The only change is that Abbas presented the plan as a replacement for that of Trump.
In his speech before the UN Security Council, Abbas also declared that Israel had created a one-state, apartheid reality between the river and the sea. It is important to pay attention to this claim, which very well may be used as the basis for future Palestinian moves against Israel in the international arena. No less important is the fact that none of Abbas’s speeches since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration has he expressed his intention to dissolve the PA. On the contrary, he spoke of the PA as a realization, however partial, of Palestinian national aspirations and as the future basis for a fully sovereign state along ’67 lines.
Netanyahu’s transformation into a lame duck is an unexpected gift to Abbas. The political uncertainty in Israel has made it impossible for Trump to put the blame for the mess on Abbas. Any move Netanyahu makes — peace or war, annexation or withdrawal — will be interpreted as an attempt to escape the stink of corruption that has engulfed him and would result in serious crises of legitimacy. The battle within the Likud to succeed Netanyahu, the possibility of early elections in Israel, and the time that it will take for the prime minister’s successor to build a coalition and establish working relations with the Trump administration has given Abbas breathing room.
In the U.S., too, the Mueller investigation continues to threaten Trump, whose popularity is falling. This year will also see mid-term elections in the U.S. In light of all of this, it is hard to imagine that Trump will present his plan. And even if he does, it will likely be difficult to enforce it. The window of opportunity is closed. Abbas has embarked on a political battle against Trump, and while he hasn’t defeated him, Abbas has won some unexpected points.
Menachem Klein is a visiting professor at King’s College London, and a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. He was an advisor to the Israeli negotiating team during the 2000 peace talks, and is one of he leading members of the Geneva Initiative. His book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, was selected by The New Republic as one of 2014’s ‘best books for understanding our complicated world.’ This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.