Mahmoud Abbas Doesn’t Have a Trump Strategy
The U.S. president seems out to get Palestine, and there's nobody with the vision or charisma to do anything about it.
To hear Palestinian leaders tell it, their relationship with the Trump administration has now been simplified. “We will sever all ties with the Americans,” Ahmed Majdalani, a confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told me, “this means the end of the peace process and the U.S. role there.”
Palestinian leaders once again denounced Trump after he took to Twitter on Jan. 2 to threaten aid to the Palestinian Authority, with one senior official insisting Trump “is not a serious man.” Beyond the rhetoric, however, the truth is that the Palestinians still don’t have a strategy for how to respond to the American president, particularly after his announcement that the United States considers Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
On paper, the plan is to seek support for statehood from the United Nations: Abbas recently declared that he would again seek full membership at the United Nations — a step he also took in 2011, 2012, and 2014. In addition, Abbas is seeking other ways to garner international recognition: He signed 22 international conventions and treaties on Dec. 11 and threatened to keep signing until the Palestinians have joined over 500 organizations, a strategy that has also been around since 2011.
But, strategically, these repeated attempts to internationalize the conflict have been a failure.
Successive votes at the United Nations General Assembly (like this month’s lopsided resolution condemning Trump’s Jerusalem decision), recognition from European parliaments, and accession to international treaties haven’t resulted in more political or economic autonomy for Palestinians. Even in moments where outside countries do offer to intervene — like Japan’s offer last week to play a mediating role between the two parties — it’s with the caveat that the United States is still heavily involved. And when the campaign reaches the U.N. Security Council, it’s met with the American veto. Thus, the campaign ends up antagonizing the Americans, while most countries still defer to Washington on the peace process — meaning little actually changes on the ground for Palestinians.
This international campaign was initially conceived not as a standalone strategy for achieving statehood but as a tactic for increasing leverage against Israel in peace negotiations. As senior Palestinian officials told me in 2013, they would aim to join these organizations over time in order to increase their bargaining position. And during former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, this tactic largely worked: Israel even agreed to release 100 Palestinian prisoners in stages in exchange for a halt to the Palestinians’ international campaign in 2013.
But absent a peace process, this quest for international recognition of a Palestinian state seems little more than an exercise in symbolism. Even the effort to press for action at the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials, which initially worried many Israeli leaders, seems blunted since U.N. investigations also found Palestinians responsible for war crimes, confounding expectations it would only blame the Israelis.
Yet the international campaign is not Abbas’s only option for increasing leverage against Israel. In recent years, prominent Palestinian officials have increasingly called for embracing popular protests. Going further, Fatah Vice President Mahmoud al-Aloul gave a televised speech last week in which he declared, “all forms of resistance are legitimate,” while his party’s parliamentary body called for the formation of local committees to steer popular resistance. This comes on the heels of repeated calls for “days of rage” and protests in the streets.
Yet here, too, the rhetoric is deceptive. For while the Palestinian leadership has brought people into the streets, Abbas has quietly shown an unwillingness to let the situation escalate and threaten the Palestinian Authority’s security coordination with Israel. “A decision has been made at the highest political levels that there will not be any military confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank,” Ahmed Hanoun, a PLO official, told me last week. “We are keen on keeping it this way.”
In the weeks since Trump’s speech, Palestinians have nevertheless taken to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza to protest against Israel and the United States. Scores have been wounded and several killed in widespread, yet reportedly diminishing, clashes. For Palestinian leaders calling on people to take to the streets, this amounts to playing with fire: Last year, thousands protested against Hamas in Gaza, and at the last Palestinian Authority-organized rally in 2014 there was concern that the protesters may have turned back and directed their ire at Ramallah.
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement also had the effect of galvanizing Palestinians behind redoubled calls for reconciliation between the two largest factions, Fatah and Hamas. “This historical stage requires that we all unite and speed up steps of uniting the homeland,” PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced after Trump’s speech.
Yet the effort to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under one leadership faces challenges that Trump’s speech on Jerusalem will not bridge. Since the latest unity deal was announced in October, the process has been deadlocked over two issues: how to reconcile the parallel civil workforces in the PA and Hamas governments in Gaza, and what to do with Hamas’s standing army and use of force in conflict with Israel. In the 10 years since Hamas seized control of Gaza, the two factions’ list of grievances has only grown. Just last month, Hamas reportedly prevented PA workers from returning to Gaza, while on Dec. 21 Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar declared the unity deal on the point of collapse “because some people want to get from it the relinquishing of arms and the closing of tunnels.”
If the Palestinian national movement is going to change its strategy, it needs a leader with the vision and charisma to navigate this shift. These are all characteristics that do not define Mahmoud Abbas today. As the Palestinian patriarch of the Oslo peace process, Abbas has staked his career on negotiations with Israel as the most viable path toward a Palestinian state. He has vacillated between other approaches but knows that his international campaign is not a way toward statehood (as demonstrated by his willingness to halt it in favor of talks), and he knows that he cannot coexist with Hamas (as shown by successive collapsed reconciliation agreements). Even were he to pursue a “one-state reality” — as some of his advisors have now called for — many would doubt his ability to lead the Palestinians in a new direction.
In the waning years of the Abbas era, the truth is that the room for debate over a Palestinian national strategy has withered. The alternatives the Palestinian president has chosen in lieu of the peace process — namely internationalization and reconciliation with Hamas — are more cosmetic than realistic. Palestinian journalist Dalia Hatuqa wrote after the Trump speech that Abbas and company must realize that “no outside help is coming.” Given the dearth of strategic thinking within the Palestinian leadership today, no internal help seems to be coming either.