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17
Dec
2017

Mahmoud Abbas vs. Donald Trump


At the end of the Islamic summit in Istanbul, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced on December 13, 2017, that the Palestinians would appeal to the UN Security Council to annul President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and would also request that the United Nations grant full membership to the state of Palestine.

Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Istanbul, December 13, 2017

Abbas did not explain how the appeal to the United Nations would be made or what he intended to do about a possible American veto in the Security Council. He appears, though, to have decided to take off the gloves and launch an all-out diplomatic struggle against President Trump.

Abbas now wants to oust the United States from its mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians and create new diplomatic facts.

The PA chairman is under heavy pressure. While Abbas was still at the summit in Turkey, senior Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk called on him not to return to the Muqata headquarters in Ramallah until President Trump had retracted his declaration about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas’ call for a new intifada has sparked widespread popular protest. In calling for an intifada, Hamas pre-empted the PA chairman, taking the credit for itself. The Palestinian street sees Abbas as a confused, weak leader who does not know how to fight back against the United States.

A week has passed since President Trump’s declaration, and Abbas has not managed to formulate a diplomatic plan to change it. Abbas is now talking about turning to the UN institutions. Senior Fatah official Abbas Zaki says the Palestinians will also take the fight against the United States and Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Zaki further claims that the Palestinians have prepared a legal plan for the struggle against the administration. “We are on offense, not on defense,” he boasted.

The 82-year-old Abbas appears to feel that he has nothing left to lose. He is at the end of his political career, and he does not want to leave the political arena with another failure pinned on him.

Indeed, during his 12 years in office he has lost control of the Gaza Strip to the Hamas movement and divided the Palestinian people.

Abbas Ignores Arab Advice

Abbas is in a combative mood. On December 12, 2017, the website Alkhaleej Online reported that he had “threatened to turn the tables on everyone” and reveal the names of the Arab and European states that helped Trump make his decision on declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.   

President Sisi (left) King Abdullah (center) and Chairman Abbas at a meeting earlier this year.

Abbas told Egypt’s President Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah that he would fight the Trump administration to the hilt in an effort to force Trump to retract his declaration on the Jerusalem issue.

Egypt and Jordan fear that Abbas’ desire to take revenge on the administration will hamstring their relations with the United States.

That explains why no emergency summit of the Arab states was convened in Jordan. In the three-way meeting between Sisi, Abbas, and Abdullah in Cairo, heated arguments reportedly broke out, according to a report on December 12, 2017, by Alkhaleej Online.

Abbas demanded that the Arab states take strong measures against the Trump administration, but encountered a very cold shoulder.

Sisi asked him to calm down and not take political or diplomatic measures that he would likely regret and that would exacerbate the crisis between him and Trump.

The Egyptian president told the PA chairman that he should leave the door open to the administration and let Trump present him with the new peace plan he is preparing; otherwise, Abbas stands to lose all his bargaining power.

Abbas, however, stood his ground, insisting on going all-out in his fight against the administration. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan completely rebuffed this approach, and the PA chairman went to Turkey to seek backing and assistance from Turkey, Qatar, and Iran.

The strategy Abbas is pursuing is likely to totally undercut the announcement of Trump’s diplomatic plan, which is expected at the beginning of the New Year.

Missing an Opportunity, Again

Abbas may look askance at the plan because he fears making additional concessions on the issues of security control in the Jordan River Valley, sovereignty in east Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount, and the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees.

During his meeting in Saudi Arabia three weeks ago with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Abbas realized that he would be required to make concessions on the red lines set by the Palestinian leadership.

He faced similar pressures in the July 2000 Camp David Summit between Yasser Arafat, President Clinton, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. When Abbas realized that Arafat was being asked to make concessions on the Palestinian red lines, he counseled him to refuse and, for his own part, left the summit immediately so as not to be accused of playing a role in the concessions.

Abbas has opted for a direct confrontation with the Trump administration without knowing how to extricate himself from it. He is relying on the support of the European countries, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, and possibly of other countries as well.

The moderate Arab camp, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, is not looking for a confrontation with Washington. It appears that Abbas, however, has decided not to heed their advice.

The coming weeks will be marked by wide-ranging diplomatic activity. The popular protests in the territories will continue, providing a backdrop of support for the PA’s diplomatic efforts.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

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