Mahmoud Abbas’s Disappearing Options

In a matter of days, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas will travel across the world, from Moscow—where he arrived on February 10—to New York, in an attempt to address the shifting paradigm on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hoping to move it in a different direction. With his options today perhaps narrower than ever before, Abbas is rapidly approaching a game-changing moment.

Trump’s Three-pronged Attack, and the Trump Plan

With American policy catering to the Israeli right’s wishes, Abbas is rapidly approaching a game-changing moment.

To understand recent developments that led to this critical juncture, it is important to review the shift in the American positions introduced by the Trump Administration since it assumed power in January 2017. While it was expected from the outset that the administration would be very sympathetic to Israel, and particularly to its right-wing fringe, it was not clear how that sympathy would translate into policy. What we have seen over the course of the past year are dramatic policy shifts that have completely reoriented Washington’s position toward Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

First, and perhaps most importantly, was the shift away from a two-state solution and an independent and sovereign Palestinian state as an explicit goal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Second was the reversal of the US position on Jerusalem, which Washington had long refused to recognize as the capital of either state until the end of negotiations. This change on Jerusalem, in particular, broke an American guarantee that initiated the peace process ahead of the Madrid conference in 1991, but it also legitimized the principle of land grabs—which have far-reaching implications beyond Jerusalem itself. Third, and most recently, Washington has taken an aggressive position toward the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), as the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu criticized it for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis; the United States has called for reforms in the agency while it withholds millions of dollars in desperately needed funding.

Trump’s change on Jerusalem broke an American guarantee that initiated the peace process in 1991

The Trump White House’s three-pronged attack on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has made it impossible for Abbas to continue engaging with Washington. At the same time, however, Washington is reportedly aiming to put forward an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that will likely fit the contours of the Israeli right-wing’s desires. Leaked reports of the plan suggest that it would include an annexation of 10 percent of the West Bank to Israel, among other deal- breakers for even the characteristically pliant Abbas. Notably, the 10 percent model would be more significant than anything ever discussed in the negotiations between Abbas and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, although that proposal for a 10.6 percent annexation was presented by the Israeli working group during negotiations in 2008. A map of that annexation proposal shows it includes the Maale Adumim, Ariel, and Kedumim settlement blocs, all of which cut deep into the West Bank thus complicating contiguity and viability. It should be noted that this proposal did not make clear which, if any, territory would be taken from Israel and given to the new Palestinian state. The 10 percent figure represents an extreme end of the demands made in previous negotiations over land swaps; if it indeed represents where the Trump plan will start, it is a clear indication of just how much the plan would be crafted to please the Israeli right.

When the plan is presented, however, and no matter how bad it might be, there will be no ignoring it. Abbas will have to respond to it in one form or another. He could dismiss it outright (a response most Palestinians would support), choose to study it, or the most unlikely of all scenarios, accept it. The way Trump is proceeding indicates that he plans to move forward with his plan whether the Palestinians accept it or not. This was the case with the Jerusalem declaration and may well be Trump’s modus operandi with other issues as well. What happens when Abbas rejects an obviously pro-Israel American plan and Washington green-lights continued Israeli expansion anyway? This is a moment Abbas is not looking forward to confronting, but it is rapidly approaching.

Abbas Looking for Help

Palestinians cannot engage in a peace process led by the Trump Administration…

Despite what seemed to be warm relations at the outset of the Trump-Abbas relationship, all that has decidedly changed in the aftermath of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. When Trump visited the region in mid-2017, he told an Israeli audience that included government ministers that Mahmoud Abbas wants peace. Today, that praise is clearly a thing of the past. After the Jerusalem declaration, the Palestinians worked for a vote in the United Nations Security Council condemning the American move and did the same at the General Assembly. Both initiatives left the United States dramatically isolated on this issue, but more importantly, they highlighted the extent to which the Jerusalem declaration imperiled Washington’s relationship with the Palestinians. A war of words followed, including a commitment to retribution from the Americans, who promised to begin cutting aid.

Since the American decision on Jerusalem, Abbas has been looking all over the world for help. In late December he visited France and, standing alongside President Emmanuel Macron, blasted the decision and stated he would not accept any American plan. He met recently with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited Palestine earlier in February, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. On February 20, Abbas is supposed to make a rare appearance at the United Nations Security Council. He carries the same message everywhere: that the Palestinians cannot engage in a peace process led by the Trump Administration and that other players must get involved. The Americans would like Abbas to realize he has no other option than to work with them, and despite dealing him a great blow with the Jerusalem recognition, they may also come to realize that they have to walk back the impact of this decision in order to give Abbas the cover he needs to re-engage with them. That might explain the comments President Trump gave to Israel Hayom on February 10, when he questioned whether the Israelis were ready to make peace and said that settlements were a problem. (He also said that “the Palestinians are not looking to make peace.”) The comments may have been meant to serve as a ladder to Abbas, who could then point to the president’s critical comments to the pro-Netanyahu paper as evidence that he would be willing to convey difficult messages to the Israeli right. While Washington may hope Abbas takes the comments this way, the Palestinian leader would be taking a great risk to trust Trump—at any time, but especially after the Jerusalem declaration. For this reason, Abbas is looking to bring other players in.

But the world has seen how the moribund Middle East Quartet, which included the Russians, the European Union, and the United Nations alongside the Americans, operated. Despite the veneer of multilateralism, the Americans were still running the show. While Abbas may be able to argue that the unorthodoxy of the Trump Administration makes a multilateral approach more necessary and urgent than ever before, it is unclear how it would change any of the practical imbalances of power, even if such a multilateral mechanism is actually revived.

Scenarios and Possibilities

The absence of a peace process forces Israel to confront the reality of apartheid it has created in the occupied Palestinian territories.

When the White House presents its peace plan, it will force a reckoning: either the parties will find a way to use it to move forward, or, much more likely, the plan will be dismissed by the Palestinians for being too far from the Palestinian minimum requirements to be taken seriously. But then what? The most plausible scenario is that once it becomes clear the plan will not advance the process, the Palestinians will be blamed, both by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump. Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition will then take continued steps to annex territory in the West Bank, exploiting the opportunity presented by the Trump Administration to fully shift the paradigm and eliminate the possibility of a Palestinian state, even in conversation.

This would then further take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda with some two years of likely continued overlap between right-wing governments in the United States and Israel, both of which will probably not change course. During this period, Abbas will be left with no options, as he would have already exhausted all of them.

One of the problems this presents for Israel is that the absence of any process, even a “Potemkin” one as Hillary Clinton once put it, forces a confrontation with the apartheid reality on the ground. This comes with costs for Israel that can potentially increase over time—and therefore, this is not an ideal outcome for Tel Aviv. If Abbas can be painted as the reason for the breakdown, which is likely to be the response from Netanyahu and Trump, they can both or individually argue that a new Palestinian partner is needed. This was just the case in 2002 when then President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued that Palestinians needed new leadership, leading to a transition between Arafat and Abbas. Trump and Netanyahu may very well follow these steps.

Unlike 2002, however, there is no intifada taking place right now, and Abbas’s history of security coordination with Israel will make it harder for Netanyahu and Trump to portray him as a security threat, the way their predecessors did with Arafat. And unlike Arafat, Abbas is domestically weak. A poll in December 2017 indicated that most Palestinians, about 70 percent, want him to resign. While Abbas might be more vulnerable to challenges than Arafat, however, he also does not have any heirs apparent in the role he served before taking the reins from Arafat. But should the opportunity arise, challengers might begin to appear. One is Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah Party strongman who used to be close to Abbas before going into exile. Dahlan is closely connected to the United Arab Emirates, which has developed strong ties with the Trump White House. Indeed, the project of developing Palestinian institutions and leadership led to years of delaying timelines for fulfilling Israeli obligations. Another such delay might seem attractive to both the Americans and the Israelis as it would buy the Israelis time. Some Palestinians who stand to gain from this might find it an attractive option as well. Recent news of police recommendations for indictments against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, implicated in various scandals, could also lead to a shake-up in Israeli politics.

Abbas’s history of security coordination with Israel makes it harder for Netanyahu and Trump to portray him as a security threat.

Another outcome that may unfold is an increase in localized or regional conflict. Abbas has been dedicated to security coordination with the Israelis, but if Trump and Netanyahu continue to push him into a corner, he may be less willing or less able to hold back armed Palestinian efforts against Israel. In Gaza, pressure is building locally due to the dire situation on the ground created by the Israeli siege, exacerbated by Hamas-Fatah disputes and recent cuts to UNRWA funding by the United States. Here, too, Hamas has practiced its own form of security coordination with the Israelis, cracking down on groups that fire projectiles and not launching weapons of their own. But they are also being backed into a corner and will struggle to maintain this situation with Israel over time. The increased prospect of further destabilizing violence may, this time around, come with new political consequences.

Beyond an Israeli-Palestinian escalation, a regional war may have transformative effects; and recent events between Israel and Syria suggest a new conflagration might be possible in the near future. It is unclear how such a conflict would develop, but if a hot war between Israel and Syria were to break out, it would force regional players to take sides in ways we have not seen since the 2006 war on Lebanon. The Arab regimes, which have been aligning with Israel in opposition to Iran, may be forced to bring this alliance out into the open. The Palestinian leadership would be thrust into a difficult situation where they would be forced to choose between siding with Israel and some Arab states, against Iran and other Arab states. The cost of such a decision, or indecision, may be as high for the Palestinians as the one they made during the first Gulf war, when Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein and consequently lost the trust of most of his longtime backers.

In sum, the region is fast approaching a juncture where transformative decisions may be made. Abbas’s options have significantly narrowed; but forcing him into this situation should not be viewed necessarily as beneficial for anyone until it is clear what the implications will be. For many players in the Israeli-Palestinian morass, the decisions on the horizon will come at a significant cost.