Abbas’ dwindling fortunes
ONE of the forgotten political casualties of the Arab Spring in the past two years has been Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He is still in power in Ramallah, but his political fortunes have been dwindling ever since he lost control of Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007. He presides over an almost bankrupt Palestinian Authority (PA), while his influence in Washington is all but gone. He is frequently attacked and rebuffed by Israel and his attempts to revive the peace process, especially in the early months of Barack Obama's first term at the White House, have been met with failure.
A right-wing Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has stifled shy US initiatives to restart the ailing process. The PA barely governs in areas of the West Bank where Israel allows it to. Washington has shown little interest in re-engaging the parties and resume negotiations. It is believed that the Obama administration has put this issue on the back burner until the end of the US elections. Abbas will have to wait until Israel holds its own elections next January. Last week he stunned supporters and fellow Palestinians by telling a major Israeli TV that he has no right to live in his hometown of Safed, which is now part of Israel. He was quickly attacked by Hamas and even members of his own movement, Fateh, for relinquishing the right of return which affects between four to six million Palestinian refugees.
The problem of refugees, whose right to return is guaranteed under resolution 194, was to be among the main issues left by the Oslo Accords to the final status negotiations. Others include borders, East Jerusalem and settlements. Progress on some of these issues was made at Camp David in 2000, but a final deal fell through. Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also failed to reach a deal in 2008.
Abbas’ recent statements were shrugged by Netanyahu while his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused him of meddling in internal Israeli politics and attempting to tilt the results of the Jan. 22 elections. If anything Abbas managed to put the peace process back in Israeli public debate ahead of the Knesset elections. His call for a resumption of negotiations was welcomed by President Shimon Peres. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that Abbas has expressed willingness to forfeit the "right of return" in closed talks too. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a harsh statement accusing Netanyahu of missing a critical opportunity to pursue peace.
Abbas has since defended his statements and denied that he has forfeited the right of return for millions of Palestinians. He made these statements few days before he was to head to the UN to pursue Palestine's application to be admitted as a non-member state with observer status. In the view of some Palestinians this could be Abbas' final gesture as leader. Others have warned of a possible political vacuum in the West Bank in the wake of Abbas' imminent departure from politics.
In recent weeks there were signs that a new approach to the Palestinian issue could also be developing. Abbas was angered by "a state visit" to the Gaza Strip paid by the Qatari emir via Egypt. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted again that he was planning to visit the beleaguered strip. Al Jazeera news website quoted unnamed senior Jordanian sources as expressing concern over the development of a new political axis comprising Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, and Arab Spring countries with growing Muslim Brotherhood influence. According to pundits by-passing the PNA has given the Gaza government an important political lift.
Hamas has witnessed a major structural overhaul in its leadership with the departure of Khaled Mishaal and the movement's disengagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And with the collapse of Palestinian reconciliation initiatives — Abbas blames Hamas for failing to implement a Cairo agreement signed last year — the reality today is that Gaza and the West Bank have become two separate entities with two distinct set of allies and political backers.
Abbas may have sensed that the terrain has changed. He has been repeatedly attacked by Netanyahu and Lieberman and ignored by key Gulf countries. He lost one of his strongest Arab allies, President Hosni Mubarak, to the Egyptian revolution. Relations with Cairo are frigid and Amman has a critical view of him. If Abbas withdraws from political life chances are that the PA will soon collapse. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad enjoys US and European support but he is not a popular leader who can take over.
Against this backdrop pundits believe that a new approach may take shape in the coming months. Jordanians were surprised by senior PLO official, Farouq Kadoumi, who said that he has no problem with the West Bank returning to Jordan within a federated or confederated arrangement. Kadoumi, a critic of Oslo, said the two-state solution is dead and if Jordan can save the West Bank then it should be encouraged to do so. There was no official reaction to this from Amman, while PNA officials said the objective now is to end occupation not to discuss relations with Jordan. The suggestion revives old plans and initiatives, including Israeli ones. For now the current Israeli government is bent on ignoring Abbas. Netanyahu and his right wing partners are likely to form the next government. Could the pieces fall in their place afterward?