(February 11, 2018 / JNS) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appears to believe he has nothing to lose in picking a fight with the United States.
Abbas is scheduled to address the U.N. Security Council later this month after Kuwait’s U.N. Ambassador Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi, president of the council for February, invited him to speak. It’s everyone’s guess what Abbas plans to talk about, but speculation abounds that he will continue his tirade against the Trump administration.
Over the past few months, the U.S.-Palestinian relationship has deteriorated, marked by a number of significant incidents. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened to close the Palestinian mission in Washington, D.C. In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which drew a strong rebuke from Palestinians as they have long sought to have their own capital in the holy city. As a result, Abbas has announced that the Palestinians would seek full membership at the United Nations and 22 other international organizations, while also declaring that the United States is no longer an “honest broker” in the Middle East peace process.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a long-time advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, explained to JNS how Abbas’s current effort to apply for state recognition at the United Nations is worthless.
“The U.N. doesn’t recognize states,” said Gold. “A newly created state declares independence. The second step is when other countries recognize the new state bilaterally. And the third step in the birth of a state is that it then requests U.N. membership. It sounds like Abbas is trying to implement step three before step one.”
“The Palestinian Authority argument,” Gold pointed out, “is that in 1988 at the Palestinian National Council in Algiers, [former PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat declared an independent state. But throughout the `90s, the Palestinian Authority threatened that it would declare a state. How could you threaten a state if you already had one in 1988? This is the best indicator that the 1988 declaration was not an issue.”
“In any event,” he emphasized, “a unilateral declaration of statehood or seeking U.N. involvement is a material breach of the Oslo commitments.”
Nevertheless, the war of words between the Palestinians and the Trump administration have only increased in recent weeks, with Trump threatening to cut vital funding to the P.A. if it does not return to the negotiating table with Israel.
In January, the Trump administration slashed the flow of U.S. funds to UNRWA, the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, and the Palestinians snubbed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence when he visited the region. Trump threatened further aid cuts to the Palestinians when he met with Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
More recently, Abbas addressed a Palestinian youth festival, and said that Jerusalem is and always has been a city for Muslims and Christians. He purposely omitted any mention of Jews.
In response, Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, slammed Abbas for failing to mention Jerusalem’s connection to the Jewish people. “Nothing peaceful or productive can come from statements like this,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter. “Lasting peace will not be achieved by denying Judaism’s thousands of years of ties to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews,” he added.
At the same time, referring to a tweet from U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman accusing Palestinian leaders of praising the terrorist who stabbed to death 29-year-old Rabbi Itamar Ben-Gal on Feb. 5 outside the town of Ariel, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh blamed Friedman for the “crisis in U.S.-Palestinian relations.”
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the Middle East in late January, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley slammed Abbas, saying he lacks courage to make peace with Israel. Haley said that while America was “eager” to pursue peace, “we will not chase after a Palestinian leadership that lacks what’s needed to achieve peace.”
Professor Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on U.S. Middle East foreign policy at the Chatham House think tank in London, told JNS he believes the U.S.-Palestinian relationship is “heading lower, if in any direction.”
“”You can see how upset Abbas was during the Pence visit,” he said. “It’s a big deal and it’s quite a bold move to snub the U.S. administration. For the Palestinians, any semblance of the U.S. as honest broker is gone—not that they ever thought so—but they were able to pretend in the past. Now it’s gone.”
Mekelberg said that by employing explosive rhetoric, Abbas is simply managing the Palestinian people.
“He knows that he has very little to lose. There is anger among his own people. He is trying to survive in power. What can he promise his own people? He sees the anger and the fingers are pointed at him. So he is in an almost untenable situation. At this point, no one in the U.S. or Europe takes his words seriously. These aren’t policies—just words. It is constituency management at this point.”
Gold agreed that Abbas “is mostly putting his focus on his rhetoric these days,” which is still “untenable.”
Going forward, both Gold and Mekelberg see these moves by Abbas as a signal that the Palestinian leader is nearing the end of his political career and has nothing to lose by standing up to Trump.
Said Gold: “He’s reaching the end of his time.”