July 8, 2014 | Policy Brief

Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Street

July 8, 2014 | Policy Brief

Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Street

Since the eruption of violence across Arab communities in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank last week, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has endeavored to straddle a fine line between pragmatic policy choices and Palestinian public opinion. 

After learning of the grisly murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a teenager from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, the Palestinian street has erupted with rage. Even before Israeli authorities identified six Jewish extremists now suspected of carrying out the attack, Abbas urged caution among the Palestinians. He was, after all, the Palestinian leader who brought an end to the second intifada of 2000-2005, stressing that violence was not the way to achieve statehood. Amidst this crisis, he has actively engaged and coordinated with the Israelis on the security front, helping in the manhunt for the killers of the three Israeli teenagers last month. Some are speculating that he even supported the Israeli-led campaign that targeted assets of the terrorist group Hamas in the West Bank. 

But this did not come without its hazards. Palestinian social media campaigns against Abbas have gone viral in recent weeks, with some saying that the PA President is no longer their leader, specifically because he has not embraced a more confrontational stance. 

Rival Palestinian political factions were also quick to jump into the fray. Barely days after Abu Khdeir’s murder, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) called for an intifada in East Jerusalem, in what appeared to be a direct contravention of Abbas’ approach. Hamas officials also blasted Abbas for cooperating with Israel and appearing weak in the face of Israeli advancements into the West Bank and East Jerusalem – not to mention airstrikes against targets in the Gaza Strip. 

Even members of Abbas’ own Fatah party criticized their party leader. Taysir Khaled and Jibril Rajoub—who some speculate is eyeing Abbas’s job—reportedly got into heated shouting matches with Abbas at Fatah’s Central Committee meeting, where major policy decisions are often made.  

After Israeli authorities confirmed that Abu Khdeir’s murderers were in fact Israelis, Abbas began to attempt to appease the Palestinian street and its demands for justice. His ministry of information released a memo Sunday, blaming Netanyahu for the crime. 

But satiating the Palestinian street’s desire for vengeance is not Abbas’ strategy. Earlier this week, Abbas met with Robert Serry, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, to pressure the UN to intervene in the current crisis. Abbas urged Ban Ki-Moon to order an investigation into Israeli policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, also met with international diplomats in the West Bank, where he threatened to pursue claims against Israel at the International Crimina Court (ICC) – by now a commonly issued threat. 

Abbas, after gaining recognition of the “State of Palestine” at the UN General Assembly in 2012, signed on to 15 international organizations earlier this year. The move was part of a broader strategy he has been pursuing since 2005 known as “Palestine 194.” The initiative is designed to gain the Palestinians statehood outside of bilateral negotiations with Israel, which have failed repeatedly in recent decades. The campaign is one of the few Palestinian policies that have polled positively on the Palestinian street.  

Abbas is hoping that this strategy is still popular among his constituents. If it isn’t, they may yet push him further toward the brink with Israel. For now, that is something the embattled Palestinian leader seeks to avoid. 

Grant Rumley is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Palestinian politics.


Palestinian Politics