Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, nearing 80, has proved time and again in the last two decades that he will never put pen to paper on an accord for ending the dispute with Israel. If he really wanted an independent Palestinian state, he could at any time have followed the path to self-determination chosen by David Ben Gurion, when he declared Israeli statehood on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv. Had Abbas (known mostly as Abu Mazen) formally convened an assembly of Palestinian community and institutional leaders at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah and proclaimed statehood, there would have been very little Israel could have done.
But that is not his way and never has been, because for him Palestinian independence is no more than an abstract slogan which must never come to earth.
In 1995, Abbas and the dovish Israeli politician Yossie Bailin jointly drafted a document, which later carried their names, offering a formula for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute – except that he never signed it. He couldn’t bring himself to this commitment, because it conflicted with his fundamental principles and put his political survival at risk.
Today, too, the rise of a Palestinian state would end Abbas’s career as Palestinian leader. He holds sway over the six West Bank towns which passed to Palestinian Authority control without a legal mandate. The last Palestinian elections in 2006 gave his Fatah party only 48 seats compared with 76 netted by the rival Hamas.
Israel, the United States and Europe therefore respect as their legitimate Palestinian partner for peace negotiations a figure who is unelected and whose rule is buttressed by seven Palestinian security battalions, which America and Europe agreed to bankroll to the tune of $2 billion, after the cutoff of Arab aid. Another three battalions are due to be added to the force.
So Abu Mazen keeps up the masquerade of striving for Palestinian independence and staying in the talking shop for two purposes: It keeps him in power by dint of international recognition, and donations continue to roll in to feed his corrupt regime and cover the payroll of his security force.
Not much is left to trickle down to the ordinary Palestinian family.
To buy a small measure of street credibility, Abbas must show the people that he is the only leader able to force Israel to release Palestinians from long prison sentences. He achieves this by making this his price for not walking away from the table
So long as the money flows in and Palestinians are sprung from Israeli jails, no voices are raised in circles that count in Ramallah against the corrupt practices eating away at the regime.
Abbas therefore ranted and raved when Israel’s cancelled the fourth batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners due to be released March 30, to punish him for sending applications to 15 UN agencies and conventions for membership to bypass the negotiations. Israel also hit back at Abbas with a threat of sanctions – some directed against his personal business interests.
US Secretary of State John Kerry's hard work as would-be peacemaker was not just thrown back in his face but drew criticism at home from his colleagues in the White House and State Department. He tried Thursday to speak to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in what was described as a desperate bid to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The US Secretary rebuked both the two leaders equally for engaging in “tit-for-tat” tactics, but he knew exactly which side had caused the rupture. Kerry must by now realize that Abu Mazen’s history of withdrawing from any fruitful dialogue for peace made this outcome inevitable. Had he gone for interim accords, which he never considered, rather than final solutions, he might have bought a few years' lull in the dispute, although this too would have come apart over the same Palestinian dynamic.
In the past, Abu Mazen had to contend with only one effective dissenting voice. It came from his bitter rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who ended up quitting his comfortable berth on Palestinian Authority and Fatah councils in Ramallah and going into exile. There, too, he landed on his feet.
Some 30 years younger that Abbas, Dahlan has been a persona non grata for Israel as former Gaza strongman and innovative terrorist.
He is problematic on at least three more counts:
1. Seven years ago, he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – for promising to rid the Gaza Strip of Hamas rule. He never delivered and refused to refund the money.
That is one US count against him. In addition, he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and their offensive against Obama administration Middle East policies.
2. Because of his unbridled criticism of Mahmoud Abbas and calls for his removal, Dahlan is on the run from his enemies who have sworn to destroy him.
3. Dahlan has managed to win the sympathy and patronage of powerful Gulf rulers. With their help, he established himself three months ago in Cairo within the Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question. This explains why Abbas gives Cairo a wide berth.
The Palestinian renegade gained this position through the influence of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of El-Sisi’s most generous bankers and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The talk of Ramallah this week was not the breakdown of talks, which surprised no one there, but interest in the way the Palestinian fate could be profitably drawn into the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian war on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring Hamas – away from the American ken.
Abbas’s rival Dahlan is shaping up as facilitator.
This trend appears to have been picked by some Israeli government and intelligence circles, judging by a comment heard from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Wednesday, April 2, during an office party on Passover Eve. He remarked that the ball is now in the Palestinian court. “Irrespective of the negotiations, Israel has found an attractive political horizon in such places as the Arab oil emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding: “If Abu Mazen is willing to follow us in that direction, fine. If not, we don’t need him.”
This comment suggested that Israel has thoughts of linking up with the emerging Saudi-Egyptian-UAR bloc and bringing the Palestinian issue on board. Whether or not these thoughts crystallize into hard policy, they hint at an alternative Israeli approach to the Palestinian question.