Abbas cries wolf again, but no one is listening
It was more a matter of when, rather than if, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas would declare (again) an end to the Palestinian Authority’s compliance with agreements signed with Israel under the Oslo Accords. It is not the first time he has done so, although he and the PA have so far refrained from translating the threat into action and confining the Oslo Accords, or what’s left of them, to history.
Abbas knows it is one of the few weapons left at his disposal against Israel, especially regarding the agreement on security cooperation — but it is also a doomsday scenario, most powerful while it is not carried out. Because the interests of the PA and Israel are so interwoven, to abandon their current cooperation on a wide range of issues that affect both sides is almost unthinkable — unless the conclusion is that the situation needs a major shock to break the impasse on reaching a fair, just and lasting final-status agreement.
The trigger for Abbas to convene the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah last week and reissue his threat was Israel’s decision to raze a cluster of Palestinian homes in Sur Baher, homes that the Jewish state claims were built illegally and too close to the separation barrier in the occupied West Bank. This was asserted despite the fact that building permits were granted by the PA. Knowing that his main trump card with Israel is cooperation on security, Abbas said later that the cessation of all agreements signed with Israel included security coordination.
In the minds of many Palestinians the PA has been reduced to a subcontractor for Israel’s security forces, prioritizing Israeli interests over those of the Palestinians
Skepticism of this was voiced not only by Israel, which was subdued in its reaction, but by Palestinian commentators and analysts; they see it as empty rhetoric from an increasingly authoritarian leader who, at 84, is refusing to hand over the torch to the next generation. One Palestinian analyst wrote: “It’s that time of the year when Mahmoud Abbas says no more agreements with Israel. The result is always the same, security coordination, business deals, collaboration on the siege of Gaza continues. But it makes a nice headline.”
While the Israelis responded to Abbas’s battle cry mainly with apathy, it seems his own people are losing faith in him, and he needs to win back their confidence. According to the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, 57 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza wish Abbas to resign; in Gaza alone the figure is 71 percent.
In the minds of many Palestinians the PA has been reduced to a subcontractor for Israel’s security forces, prioritizing Israeli interests over those of the Palestinians. To be sure, Abbas and those who support maintaining the security cooperation would argue that, without it, Israel would bring about the collapse of even the scant self-rule that the Palestinians currently “enjoy.” But unless the Palestinian leadership comes up with a plan to dramatically change the current state of affairs, they will remain associated with facilitating the occupation that deprives Palestinians of freedom and self-determination, and with the corruption that 80 percent believe exists in the PA and 67 percent believe is deep-rooted.
In the winter of his leadership, as the Right in Israel hijacks the discourse and few dare utter the notion of a Palestinian state or a two-state solution; as the occupant of the White House is doing everything to marginalize the Palestinian leadership and Abbas himself; and as disunity from within consumes much of the energy that could otherwise be diverted to politically resist the occupation, Abbas makes mainly meaningless symbolic gestures. Alternatively, he could make good on his rhetoric and test Israel’s resolve by bringing relations to a crisis point, even ending the charade of Palestinian self-government and handing the entire responsibility for the West Bank back to Israel.
Does he have the stamina to do so? Only time will tell. Nevertheless, he is being pushed by decision makers both in Israel and the US toward the inevitability of ending all cooperation. In February, for instance, Israel began deducting about $10 million a month from tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, matching the amount it claims the PA pays families of prisoners or directly to inmates in Israeli jails. This contravenes the 1994 Paris Protocol which established a customs union between Israel and the PA, whereby Israel collects value-added tax, import duties and other taxes on the PA’s behalf and hands them over every month. Israel is currently withholding revenues to the tune of $138 million. Its inability to understand that for the Palestinians those prisoners are as freedom fighters struggling against a harsh and cruel occupation, and that for Abbas to stop supporting their families would be political suicide, is a demonstration of political short-sightedness.
Abbas has set up a committee to implement the cessation of cooperation with Israel. In other words, he is biding his time in the hope that the international community, mainly Europe, will intervene on his behalf, or more probably in the hope that his threat will be forgotten. However, no one knows better than he does that while more than 160,000 PA employees have received only half their salaries in recent months, nearly a third of the workforce in the West Bank is unemployed, the PA’s debt is spiralling out of control and its room to maneuver is restricted; and without international support, which seems wanting, Abbas can hardly mount a credible challenge to Israel unless he and the Palestinian people are ready to change the rules of the game.
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg