November 15, 2018

Mahmoud Abbas: Winning abroad but losing at home

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Palestinians say that when it comes to diplomacy abroad, nobody can challenge the 80-year-old Mahmoud Abbas. But when it comes to tending to matters in the Palestinian territories, he doesn’t do so well.

In his speech on Sept. 26 to the United Nations Security Council, the Palestinian leader accused Israel of conducting a “war of genocide” during the recent aggression on Gaza. The United States slammed Abbas’ speech as “offensive” and “counterproductive” for any future peace talks.   

Palestinian analysts said Abbas was aiming at his home audience, where he was seen as not being tough enough on Israel during the summer’s fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. But while Abbas has stature outside the West Bank, he is coming under growing criticism at home.

“He has gained among international parties, but failed on the internal issue. There is still division [between Abbas’ Fatah Party and Hamas], no state institutions and a suspended Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC],” Hassan Khresheh, vice president of the PLC, said. “He has not worked hard enough on ending the division. The unity government is not functioning at all and if they don’t unite now, they will never be united.”

In April, a unity deal between the previously bitter rivals of Fatah and Hamas was reached, although it has not been implemented. Last week, Palestinian representatives of Hamas and Fatah agreed in Cairo that the Palestinian unity government will extend its control to include the Gaza Strip. Hamas hopes that the new government will manage to pay the salaries of 45,000 employees who were added to the Palestinian Authority (PA) during Hamas’ control of Gaza since 2007. Palestinian media report that efforts are underway to pay them through a third party before Eid Al-Adha (Muslim holiday of the sacrifice) beginning the evening of Oct. 4.

Khresheh said Abbas’ main agenda is returning to negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the Americans. But he said that most Palestinians have given up on bilateral negotiations with Israel, which have achieved little.

“Such negotiations will not bring rights to our people,” Khresheh said.

The fact that Abbas has been a key player in the Palestinian political process for years and hasn’t called it quits deserves recognition, he said. “He works very well diplomatically, although he is under constant pressure from the United States and Israel.”   

Khresheh said that as nothing has been gained since the U.N. recognized Israel as a non-member observer state two years ago, the PA should join other international bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). Israel has opposed this, fearing that it could be subject to war crimes trials. 

Khalida Jarrar, a member of the small hard-line group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said negotiations with Israel have not achieved anything and Abbas should pressure Israel via international organizations.

“I disagree with going back to negotiations,” Jarrar said, adding that action is needed, not more speeches. “He is just delaying going to the International Criminal Court. The ICC and sustaining Palestinian unity should be top priorities.” 

Fatah senior foreign policy adviser Husam Zomlot said bilateral talks with sole U.S. sponsorship has failed the Palestinians for 21 years and only gotten them a “state of limbo.” He urged Israel to be more forthcoming in its negotiations with Abbas, who has long advocated a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“The president believes firmly in the two-state solution and supports nonviolence,” Zomlot said. “This is an opportunity,” he suggested, that “will not repeat itself.”

The Fatah official said a peace partner like Abbas, who has clear political horizon, may not come again.  

London-based researcher Abdullah Hamidaddin said the real question is how Abbas will manage the negotiations. 

“Abbas has worked very hard but has had few successes,” Hamidaddin said. “But he was not decisive enough in the last round of negotiations. He entered them after much hesitation, and then hesitated to make tough decisions,” such as pulling out of the talks as Israel continued to expand construction in areas that Palestinians say must be part of a future Palestinian state.