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Despite shortcomings, Abbas remains vital for a peace deal

As if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not have enough problems and challenges on his hands, the US Senate is about to pass legislation that would compel the State Department to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) unless it stops paying monthly stipends to families of convicted Palestinian assailants accused of committing “acts of terror” against American and Israeli citizens.

The bill, which fails to recognize that Palestinians have been enduring the longest occupation in modern times, enjoys bipartisan support and is heavily backed by Israel’s right-wing government, which accuses Abbas of inciting violence.

The US is one of the largest contributors of foreign aid to the PA, second only to the EU and member states. On average, the PA receives about $350 million annually from the US under various aid and assistance programs. The loss of such a considerable sum would almost certainly hasten the collapse of the already cash-strapped PA, resulting in chaos in the occupied territories with dire consequences for both Israel and the Palestinians.

Abbas is already feeling the pressure, and has suspended salary payments to Palestinian prisoners belonging to Hamas who had been released under the 2014 Shalit deal. But that step was seen as part of the economic war Abbas is waging against Hamas in Gaza. If Congress passes the new bill, Abbas will have little time to take measures to suspend all payments to Palestinian prisoners and their families, numbering in the thousands.

He will soon find himself in an unenviable position: Either suspend payments under a five-decade-old program and face a popular backlash that could easily topple him, or risk losing US financial and political backing, which would bring down the PA and leave him in political wilderness.

US political support is more crucial than financial at this point. Abbas has pinned high hopes on the Trump administration kick-starting the peace process, even though it is looking more likely that the White House is unable, or unwilling, to unveil a new initiative at this stage.

Furthermore, Abbas has painted himself into a corner by suspending controversial security coordination between the PA and Israel following the outbreak of the recent crisis at Haram Al-Sharif.

For years, there has been an Israeli campaign to discredit him as a peace partner. He is accused of encouraging incitement against Israel, even though he faced popular outrage for condemning lone Palestinian attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers, and for ridiculing the idea of armed resistance and a new uprising.

The Palestinian patriarch remains the best hope for unity and a possible revival of peace talks with Israel — for now. But he faces cumbersome challenges, and he will have to plan his next steps carefully.

Osama Al-Sharif

His Fatah movement, the largest faction in the now-crippled Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is fiercely divided, with younger cadre growing increasingly frustrated with Abbas, 82, and possible successors. The health of the president, who has been in control since 2005, is also raising questions about his ability to hang on to power for much longer.

Aside from all these problems, Abbas has dug himself into a hole by declaring an economic war against his main rival in Gaza. Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007, has resisted pressure to hand power back to the PA. Repeated attempts at national reconciliation have failed. Both sides accuse each other of reneging on commitments.

But Abbas has taken the unprecedented steps of terminating the salaries of thousands of Hamas PA employees and asking Israel to reduce electricity supplies to beleaguered Gaza. These latest measures appear to have backfired, with the new Hamas leadership moving to mend fences with Egypt and reconciling with former foe, ousted Fatah leader and Abbas rival Mahmoud Dahlan.

There has been a flurry of initiatives to end the Hamas-Fatah rift, but it appears that Abbas is wary of Israeli and US reactions if he yields to Hamas’ demands of rehiring its employees and reinstating the hung Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). In addition, he, Fatah and Hamas will have to face the prospect of being tested at the polls if overdue presidential and legislative elections are held.

The Israeli onslaught against Abbas, led mainly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners — each for their own political purposes — is not embraced by the more sober military establishment. Joint security coordination has served Israeli interests well, and the PA’s collapse would open a Pandora’s Box for Israel’s occupation authorities.

Furthermore, there does not appear to be a strong successor to Abbas at this point apart from jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Dahlan is waiting in the wings, but his dubious relations with Israel will work against him in the polls.

Despite the shortcomings that Abbas may appear to have in the eyes of his critics — whether Arab, Israeli, American or Palestinian — he has become essential to salvaging a feeble last hope for an acceptable peace settlement.

This is probably why King Abdallah of Jordan decided to pay a symbolically important visit to Abbas on Monday in Ramallah, the first in five years. Abbas remains the Palestinians’ best hope for unity and a possible revival of peace talks with Israel — for now. But the Palestinian patriarch faces cumbersome challenges, and he will have to plan his next steps carefully.

Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.