January 11, 2017 | Foreign Affairs
Abbas on the Ropes
For most of his 12 years as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas has enjoyed the White House’s full-throated backing. The administration of George W. Bush, which supported Abbas’ appointment as prime minister in 2003 and lauded his rise to the presidency in 2005, showered his government with material aid and pledges of political support. Barack Obama, who called Abbas on his first day as U.S. president, launched two rounds of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and allowed Abbas to consolidate power at home.
Now Abbas must deal with the likelihood that the next U.S. administration may be hostile to his government, given the Donald Trump team’s insistence on moving the United States’ embassy to Jerusalem and Congress’ threats to rescind aid to the PA. The months ahead will thus bring new challenges to Abbas’ political position from abroad just as he faces deep problems at home.
IN A BIND
During the Bush administration, reform and democratization stood at the top of the United States’ agenda for the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, a longtime bureaucrat who opposed the terror attacks of the second intifada, seemed well suited to advance those priorities. During his brief tenure as prime minister in 2003, he positioned himself as the PA’s reformer, attempting to siphon off some of Yasir Arafat’s control of the security services and opening up government institutions. In 2005, when Abbas was elected president, he pledged to hold the first Palestinian legislative elections in a decade the next year—a sign of his commitment to the democratic process. His record so appealed to the Bush White House that after Hamas’ shocking victory in the 2006 elections and takeover of Gaza in 2007, Washington moved even closer to Abbas, providing his government with hundreds of millions of dollars in political, financial, and military aid.
A different dynamic emerged when Obama became president in 2009. Obama’s insistence on a freeze on Israeli settlement construction before the 2010–2011 negotiations put Abbas in a corner. In the past, neither Abbas nor Arafat, his predecessor, had insisted that settlement construction be halted prior to negotiations; the U.S. president had essentially outflanked the Palestinian leader, leading him up a tree and then “remov[ing] the ladder,” as Abbas put it in April 2011. In the years that followed, the United States, seeking to turn its attention elsewhere in the region, gradually began to ignore Abbas’ domestic actions, allowing him to consolidate his grip on power without imposing consequences on his government. In 2013, Abbas forced out his reform-minded prime minister Salam Fayyad; in 2015, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank violated press freedoms four times more frequently than they did in 2013, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms.
The Obama administration’s recent moves on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have put Abbas in another bind. On the one hand, the White House’s abstention from the UN Security Council’s December vote to condemn Israeli settlement-building was a clear victory for the Palestinian leadership, which has long sought to move the conflict with the Israelis into the international arena. On the other hand, John Kerry’s speech on December 28 left Abbas in a tight spot. Had Abbas publicly accepted the principles Kerry offered as a basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—for example, Kerry's insistence that any return of Palestinian refugees be “realistic”—he would have been blasted at home for compromising the PA's negotiating principles, which call for all Palestinian refugees to be allowed to exercise the right of return to Israel. He also would have risked upsetting President-elect Donald Trump, who opposed the United States’ abstention from the UN vote as well as Kerry’s speech. All Abbas could muster in the face of those pressures was a broad statement noting that he had followed Kerry’s speech with “great interest.”
The biggest question in Ramallah today is whether Trump’s campaign pledges will become policy. The president-elect’s promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his selection of David Friedman (who has called the two-state solution an “illusion”) as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and his suggestions that he will reverse the Obama administration’s last-minute actions at the UN surely trouble Abbas. Together with the growing calls in Congress to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority, they may represent an unprecedented challenge to his government.
The possibility of those calls turning into action could not come at a worse time for the 81-year-old leader. Abbas’ government is already low on cash: the PA announced on January 3 that it had so far received only half of the foreign aid it expected for its 2017 budget. Funding shortages have forced the PA to cut its subsidies to public sector institutions, such as the al-Mezan Hospital in Hebron, whose staff recently went on strike over irregular wages.
Making matters worse, Abbas’ legitimacy is under fire. His Fatah party is dangerously fractured, and his rivals in Hamas continue to plot terror attacks from the West Bank. Abbas has refused to name a deputy or successor, setting the stage for a succession crisis: challengers in the West Bank are already preparing for the potentially bloody showdown that will come when he leaves politics. To compensate for his weak position, Abbas has lashed out at public dissent, further alienating Palestinians from his government. A majority now wants Abbas to resign.
Abbas has said that he is willing to work with the next U.S. administration to restart the peace process, but even his close associates are not buying it. Some, such as the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, have fretted publicly about the Trump administration’s proposed policies. One adviser to Abbas went on Egyptian television on January 1 to warn that the Palestinians would “prepare for a confrontation with the new U.S. administration.”
A confrontation with the United States is indeed likely, no matter what Abbas does. Continuing his popular campaign to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the international arena might appeal to the Palestinian public (in 2015, some 86 percent of Palestinians supported bringing a case against Israel to the International Criminal Court), but it would antagonize the new U.S. administration. If Abbas signs another unity government deal with Hamas, which the United States has designated a terrorist group, as he did in 2014, Congress would likely slash aid to the PA. Abroad and at home, Abbas’ hand will be checked by the United States.
For more than a decade, Abbas has had either Washington’s devout support or its tacit approval to pursue his domestic agenda. In the months ahead, he will have to deal with an unfriendly White House, a possibly antagonistic Congress, and a Palestinian public that is growing more distant from his government. When Abbas was interrupted by a Fatah delegate during a three-hour speech at a party conference on November 30, he went off script to reassure the crowd. “I know where I am going,” he said. Palestinians, however, are not so sure.
Grant Rumley is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of the forthcoming book, The Last Palestinian; The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.