Palestinians will reject the deal of the century if it does not meet their demands, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki warned last week. To prepare for the rejection, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been consolidating power for more than a year at the expense of his rivals. Though centralizing power may look like an effective strategy from within, it will not likely shield the Palestinian Authority from the consequences of rejecting the White House’s forthcoming peace plan.
Abbas met U.S. President Donald Trump four times between March and September 2017, while U.S. and Palestinian delegates met more than 30 times. After Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem last year, Abbas severed political ties with the White House. Abbas then set in motion a series of moves designed to consolidate his political power and prepare his political allies to face the aftermath of dismissing the American peace proposal.
The Fatah party that Abbas leads is the dominant grouping under the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella, which is the Palestinians’ official international negotiating body. The PLO established the Palestinian Authority as an interim government pursuant to the Oslo Accords. Abbas sits at the helm of all three bodies.
In May 2018, just as the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv, Abbas convened the 787-strong Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s legislative body, for the first time in 22 years. The National Council elected a new 124-member Palestinian Central Council and reportedly transferred significant power to it. The smaller body is easier to manage in a political crisis.
Abbas convened the newly inducted Palestinian Central Council in October 2018. The Council released a statement that began with a declaration of its opposition to the Trump administration’s “deal of the century,” even though specifics of the plan have yet to be released. By holding both of these meetings in Ramallah, a city inaccessible to Palestinian expatriates and to many supporters of his PLO rivals, Abbas helped further solidify his base.
In December 2018, Abbas then moved to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority’s representative body. The Legislative Council had not met since being convened shortly after Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections. As part of its dissolution, Abbas promised to hold elections within six months — the first Palestinian elections in 13 years. That deadline is fast approaching. With a new Legislative Council reshaped in Abbas’ image, the Palestinian leader will have additional political backing to resist American or even Gulf Arab pressure to accept the peace plan.
In January of this year, Abbas chaired a meeting of Fatah’s Central Committee, during which he recommended the dissolution of the government led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Hamdallah, a low-profile technocrat who had served for six years, promptly resigned. In March, Abbas appointed Mohammad Shtayyeh as the new prime minister. Shtayyeh is known within Palestinian circles as a much more capable figure, closely aligned with President Abbas.
While consolidating power and eliminating rivals is nothing new for Abbas, undertaking all of these moves, especially with institutions that had been dormant or unchanged for years, indicates that the Palestinian president is preparing for something major.
With a consolidated Palestinian bureaucracy in place, Abbas is now bracing for the Trump peace plan, which Palestinians believe will not go far enough in recognizing their national aspirations. Nobody knows when the plan will be unveiled. There were suggestions it would be revealed in early June, after Israel’s coalition is formed and Ramadan is over. From all indications, Abbas is preparing to reject it.
Not surprisingly, Abbas’ rejectionism has soured ties with the White House. The Trump administration has taken active steps to convince the Palestinians that they are better off engaging. During a time of intransigent Palestinian policy, Washington has moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; closed the Palestinian embassy in Washington; halted funding for the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA; cut aid money to the Palestinians, and recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. It is unclear whether engagement could have prevented any of this, but the Palestinians did not even try.
A recently leaked document allegedly containing details of the White House plan promises dire consequences if the Palestinians reject the deal. Abbas’ political consolidation may have weakened internal enemies such as Hamas, but it is unlikely to shield his people from the consequences of rejecting yet another peace plan.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. The views expressed are the author’s own.