Time is running out for Mahmoud Abbas, the embattled President of the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the US are outraged because after two months he has failed to end the intifada in the occupied West Bank. US officials fear that the uprising could spiral out of control and make an already bad situation in the region much worse.
Scathing criticism of Abbas is coming in thick and fast, even from Palestinian and regional actors. Former Fatah security official Muhammad Dahlan has waded in with repeated ridicule of the president and his Ramallah authority. He accused the latter of becoming a security arm of the Israeli occupation. “He wants to see himself as the absolute ruler in Ramallah,” Dahlan said of Abbas, “and I would not give allegiance or obedience to [anyone] who is in error.”
Reports that Israel’s diplomatic-security cabinet met for “marathon discussions” about likely scenarios should the PA collapse have added more fuel to speculation that something is amiss. A series of other events give some credence to this view.
First, there was the visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to the region. He chose, significantly, the United Arab Emirates as his first port of call. The Gulf country has for several years hosted Abbas’s mercurial arch-rival, the aforementioned Dahlan.
No sooner had Kerry concluded his whistle-stop tour, which included a meeting with Abbas, than Israel announced that it was planning to open a diplomatic mission in the UAE, based in Abu Dhabi, where Dahlan is comfortably ensconced.
Kerry’s visit also coincided with other reports that the UAE’s client-ruler of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has tried in recent weeks to broker a deal between Abbas and Dahlan. The main feature of the proposal, according to the leaked reports, was Al-Sisi’s formal request that Abbas should appoint Dahlan as his deputy. Given the bad blood between the two, the proposal was predictably rejected out of hand.
Like the Israelis, the rulers of Abu Dhabi have made no secret of their antipathy toward the Islamic movements in the region. Their backing for the 2013 military coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt bears this out. On their part, the Israelis have said a number of times that if any elections were held in the occupied territories Hamas would win hands down. Whether it’s by the ballot or the bullet, their greatest fear is the Islamist rise to power in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The question is, therefore, to what extent Israel is behind current regional efforts to rehabilitate Dahlan. He is, quite bizarrely, the same individual who failed to topple the elected government led by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in a 2007 coup attempt, despite all the regional and international support he had at his disposal, including some from Israel and the US.
So why would he succeed now? All that has changed, perhaps, is that he has more financial largesse at his disposal and would be able to buy loyalty, if that is what is required to topple Abbas and pre-empt the re-emergence of Hamas as the main political force in Palestine. To this end, Dahlan would find his benefactors in Abu Dhabi more than willing to oblige given their hostility towards political Islam.
Besides this, there are other things that make the lure of Palestine naturally attractive to the UAE. The authorities in Abu Dhabi especially have long been at odds with their Gulf neighbours in Qatar over the latter’s support for the Arab Spring and the Islamic movements. For the Emiratis, support for Dahlan’s power bid is one more way to challenge Qatar’s regional influence.
Notwithstanding this week’s symbolic handshake between Netanyahu and Abbas in Paris, there is more to suggest that the US and Israel are on the hunt for a replacement for the octogenarian president. Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon called on the PA to stop inciting against Israel. Although he has been a loyal servant, the brutal reality is that Abbas is well into the twilight of his political career.
There is no doubt, though, that President Abbas still has strong cards to play, if he chooses to do so. He could, for example, implement the decision of the Central Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation – the parent body of the Palestinian Authority – to end all security coordination with the Israeli occupation. This may, in the short term, restore some credibility to him within his movement and among Palestinians generally. It would in addition make the occupation much more costly for Israel on all fronts.
There is no disgrace in admitting failure. Abbas must now accept that his brainchild, Oslo, has been a national disaster. Netanyahu’s latest demand for the US to accept unrestricted construction in the large settlement blocs in the occupied territories confirms without doubt how futile the past twenty years of negotiations have been. Instead of being a scapegoat for this fiasco, Abbas must now consider leaving with dignity rather than being pushed out in disgrace by Israel’s Arab allies in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. The Arab-Israel threat is very real. Abbas, more than most, must be aware of it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.