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Reading Mahmoud Abbas’ mind

March 2, 2017 at 8:25 pm

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – FEBRUARY 27: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the 34th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland on February 27, 2017. ( Mustafa Yalçın – Anadolu Agency )

Given my position as director general of the Palestinian Media, Research and Studies Centre, Badael, for over 10 years, between 2005 and 2011, and my current position as Director General of Masarat, the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies since 2011, along with the experience I gained from decades of researching and analysing Palestinian policies and developments in their Arab, regional and international aspects, I am always asked, especially recently, the same question in various formats, by Palestinians, Arabs, and foreigners: What is Mahmoud Abbas thinking? What is behind his policies? Why doesn’t he change his path despite clearly reaching an impasse?

The president is living through a hard time, and facing growing and dangerous challenges and risks as well as few opportunities. On one hand, he believes in the depth of the so-called peace process, the Oslo Accords, the method of negotiations and peaceful means to resolve the conflict, despite the fact that this approach did not achieve any of its goals. On the contrary, it actually led to almost the opposite results since the negotiations cannot change reality, but reflect the balances of power, and therefore they are significantly tilted in favour of the Zionist colonial settlement project.

On the other hand, he calls for popular resistance and the internationalisation of the cause, and has even tried to obtain complete membership for Palestine in the UN. When he failed to do so because he did not obtain the nine votes required in the Security Council to present the membership proposal in 2011, the proposal was presented to the UN General Assembly, and he obtained membership as a non-member observer state the next year.

He then decided to sign a number of international agreements and join a number of international conventions, including the ICC, without completely activating its membership. He used these tools for a new path to revive and improve the condition of the old path that has not and will not succeed, but rather led to the catastrophe in which we live, and it will lead to bigger catastrophes if it does not change.

In addition to this, the president did not miss out on any opportunity to resume bilateral negotiations and actually seized many opportunities to hold bilateral meetings. He also expressed his willingness to participate in bilateral meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow and Paris without adhering to the conditions that he stipulated for the resumption of bilateral negotiations. At the same time, he called for holding comprehensive negotiations via an international conference that determines a time frame for the negotiations and when to end them, and he participate d in or supported initiatives aiming to resume bilateral negotiations, such as the Aqaba Summit held a year ago, despite not participating in it and despite the fact that it was looking into reaching a regional solution for the Palestinian cause.

Read: Abbas’ wasted opportunity at the AU Summit

This may have contributed to his survival so far and to avoiding the fate of his predecessor. He may have even prevented the Palestinians in the occupied territories from suffering the same fate as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, but he did not really make much progress in ending the occupation. Instead, the occupation has deepened and the possibility of establishing a state is more distant than before, despite the fact that Palestine became an observer state in the UN. However, the “possible state” in the near future is “Netanyahu’s state” that does not qualify as a state other than in name.

Abu Mazen’s dream was – and perhaps still is – that his political life does not end like the Palestinian leaderships that preceded him, especially like Amin Al-Husseini, Ahmad Al-Shuqairi and Yasser Arafat, who died before achieving their dreams of expelling the Zionist invaders, liberating Palestine, or even establishing a Palestinian state on a quarter of Palestine’s land. However, all that Abu Mazen has achieved so far is acting as a president to an autonomous authority that he himself says is powerless.

In order to establish a state, which still hasn’t been achieved, Abu Mazen has gone far in being flexible and making concessions to the point of agreeing to the concept of a land swap, which contradicts the core of the Palestinian negotiations’ demand based on the concept of complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, i.e. the “state” territories recognised as an observer state. He also agrees to the legitimisation of settlement blocs. This also includes the willingness to concede part of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in exchange for other territories, and he agreed to a fair solution agreed upon for the refugees, giving up his right to return to his home city Safad. This means that vetoing this issue, which is considered the essence of the Palestinian cause is in Israel’s hands.

President Abbas also refused armed resistance on principle; he supported popular resistance without throwing his weight behind it or exercising his authority in Fatah, the PA and PLO to use such resistance. He believes that the Palestinians only reap what they sow and that whatever they sowed does not give them all of Palestine or a state on the 1967 borders, or even less than that. He believes they will not sow this until they prove that they are effective in providing security and stability to the regional system, including Israel’s security.

Therefore he defended the security coordination with the occupation and considered it holy, as well as defending the execution of political, economic and security obligations outlined by the Oslo Accords, even if they are one-sided. He believes this is the only way to prove they are worthy and to gain Israeli, Arab, regional, American and international credit for the Palestinians, despite the fact that the Palestinians possess a lot, beginning with the justice of the Palestinian cause, its  moral superiority, and its Arab, Muslim and international aspects, in addition to the steel will of the people who are committed to their cause and rights and willing to fight for them no matter how long and how precious the sacrifices are.

Despite the passing of over 12 years since his presidency, Abu Mazen hasn’t been able to achieve his dream of establishing a Palestinian state. Instead, the realisation of this dream has become more distant than when he became president. Despite this, he did not give up or change his path, except for small tactical changes, because he believes that the price of changing the path will be the same price paid by his predecessor, and he has always reiterated that he is not Yasser Arafat.

Read: Abbas to Trump: We are still committed to two-state solution

Now Abu Mazen finds himself in a difficult situation, as he is no longer able to continue adopting the same policy he has followed due to Donald Trump’s presidency and his expression of additional support for Israel at a time when the right-wing and extremist right-wing are ruling Israel and are competing over who will take a more extreme position. We are between those who want to annex all of the West Bank, with or without its inhabitants and those who are content with annexing Area C, with or without its few inhabitants, or with annexing part of them in accordance with strict criteria.

Hence the margin for manoeuvring narrows in Abu Mazen’s face as he cannot continue to follow the policy he has adopted since he became the Palestinian president. As I said earlier, this policy combines non-confrontation except within very tight limits and under force and between failing to meet the Israeli conditions and demands as meeting them would contribute to the erradication of the Palestinian cause.

Today, he must choose between a confrontation he does not want, surrender, which he fears, or resignation, all of which puts him in a situation where he prefers to wait; he may be able to remain in power until God says otherwise. He has complete executive, legislative and judicial powers that his predecessor did not have due to the absence of such institutions, both in the PLO and PA, in addition to the weakness of Fatah’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council. In addition to this, after holding the seventh Fatah conference and seeing its results, Abu Mazen emerged as an unchallenged leader controlling all authorities, while Fatah became weaker since it did not take advantage of its conference to hold a complete review and form a comprehensive national vision that can unite the people and rebuild the instructions in a manner that includes members from all the political and social spectrum. Fatah also suffered from the consequence of the conflict with Muhammad Dahlan and his supporters, as well as the Arab consequences arising from this.

There are those who ask why Abu Mazen doesn’t take action towards ending the division and become more than head of Fatah, the PA, the PLO and some of the Palestinians and become the leader of all the Palestinians?

The thing that prevented him from this is the fact that the authority he is the head of is hostage to unfair obligations and the way to national unity must pass through achieving complete political partnership. This means that Hamas must become a key partner and he cannot make any decisions or adopt policies without its participation. Hamas is not the same size as the other factions that Abu Mazen has continued to lead – the PLO and PA – without any objection or participation that affects his leadership. In addition to this, Hamas is more organised than Fatah, which means that its participation can open the door for it to lead.

Another thing that is stopping him from going down the unity path is the fact that participation in the decision-making process will not be limited to Hamas. He will have to include Fatah because he will need it in light of the unity. The value and participation of the other factions will grow because they will be part of the two large factions’ battle to win. Unity will cause great anger within Israel and since Israel is the occupying state, it is playing a major role in the Palestinian arena that cannot be ignored. Moreover, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad’s entry into the PLO without accepting the Quartet’s conditions will subject the PLO to American and perhaps European and international boycott and rejection.

Therefore, Abu Mazen prefers to keep the situation the same because he believes it will cause less harm than the harm of unity.

The Achilles heel of Abu Mazen’s reading of the situation is that he believes that he can maintain the current situation until developments and changes occur that allow for the acceptance of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile the past experience, since the Oslo Accords, specifically since he became president, did not bring about positive developments as much as bringing about counterproductive developments, not only because it did not manage to achieve the promise of a state, but this promise moved further due to the deeper enrooting of the occupation, the expansion of the settlements at an alarming rate, the fragmentation of the state, the blockade of Gaza, the division, and the marginalisation of the cause, which makes it inevitable for the course of action to be changed despite all the dangers and losses that may result. This is because it is impossible for the current situation to remain the same and it will lead to the loss of everything. Abbas has to choose between a confrontation he does not want and a surrender that he fears.

If Abu Mazen cannot choose either, the best option for him is to step down and hand down the responsibility to someone who can bear the responsibility, while maintaining the possibility for the authority and leadership to be transferred smoothly and in a national and legal manner and by resorting to the people as soon as possible without any or minimal damage.

Translated from the Palestinian Information Centre, 28 February 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.