Palestinian unity crucial in light of Abbas’ gamble

Palestinian unity crucial in light of Abbas’ gamble

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Reuters)

President Mahmoud Abbas detonated a political bombshell last Thursday, but barely anyone noticed. The 84-year-old Palestinian leader announced that he was suspending all agreements with Israel, adding that a committee will be formed to carry out that decision. Top Palestinian Authority (PA) aides said the decision includes everything that came as a result of the Oslo Accords, signed in Washington some 26 years ago, including the highly sensitive security coordination. Israel is yet to respond officially to Abbas’ move.

Little else has been mentioned about the decision. The committee is yet to be formed, let alone meet. No one really knows what the “halting,” “suspending” or “freezing” of the agreements really entails or what fallout is expected. The decision, which was welcomed by various Palestinian factions, including Hamas in Gaza, was taken in retaliation for Israel’s demolition last week of scores of Palestinian homes and buildings in an area close to East Jerusalem that is under the PA’s administration. The US foiled a vote to rebuke the Israeli action at the UN Security Council, adding to Palestinian frustration.

So Abbas finally made a decision that he has been threatening for months. Last year, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council decided to suspend the Oslo agreement and similar motions were adopted by the Palestine National Council and Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. But Abbas hesitated before executing these decisions.

It is difficult to ascertain what comes next. The PA’s very existence is tied to the Oslo Accords and its survival as a Palestinian entity depends on scores of agreements and understandings with Israel. In addition to the security coordination, Israel collects taxes in areas under its control and delivers the money to the cash-starved PA. For months now, the PA has refused to receive such funds because Israel was deducting millions of dollars that it says were to be given to the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails or those killed by Israel and accused of terrorism.

Also crucial to the survival of the PA, which is the largest employer of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is the so-called Paris Protocol, which regulates all economic ties between the PA and Israel. The sad reality is that, after all is said and done, the PA stands to lose the most from the suspension of agreements with Israel at this stage.

The sad reality is that the PA stands to lose the most from the suspension of agreements with Israel at this stage.

Osama Al-Sharif

Abbas needed to think his decision through carefully because the suspension of the Oslo Accords delivers a fatal blow to the PA itself. Short of disbanding the PA, declaring the West Bank and Gaza as Occupied Territories and demanding the implementation of UN resolutions, his move will not be taken seriously by Israel and the rest of the world. It is a heavy price to pay, but after years — no, decades — of Israeli disregard of its commitments under Oslo, the PA has turned into a vassal organ of Israel; maintaining occupation if not legitimizing it.

An early test of Abbas’ decision will appear soon. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah cannot move without Israeli permissions. President Abbas himself cannot travel outside the PA’s area without approval. Far more complicated will be the effect of such a move on the majority of Palestinians. Almost all daily transactions — birth and death certificates, the issuing of passports, land registration and others — are done in coordination with Israel. Halting that coordination will deny Palestinians access to basic civil services.

The decision also casts doubts on the prospects of holding fresh legislative elections and complicates the legal status of Abbas himself, as a president whose term expired almost a decade ago. And it provides no real alternatives to the possible collapse of the PA.

When efforts to restore Palestinian unity and reconciliation are bogged down, it helps serve Israeli interests at a time when Benjamin Netanyahu is battling to win a new term as premier while threatening to annex parts of the West Bank and wage a painful campaign against Hamas in Gaza. 

The question now is why did Abbas suspend rather than abrogate the agreements with Israel? The straight answer is that he is not serious about taking such a move and he hopes that Israel and the US will rush to salvage the ailing accord. But, if his gambit backfires, he will find himself in a humiliating position: Having to restore security coordination and seeking ways to save the PA. His options do not look good and he may have painted himself into a corner.

The Palestinian president needs to act quickly and find ways to restore Palestinian unity at any cost. Hamas too should realize that it can no longer sustain the status quo in Gaza and that, for the Palestinian national cause to survive this difficult test, both sides must find common ground and accept the need to compromise.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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