- President Biden’s visit to the Middle East on July 13 – 16, 2022, has left Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas frustrated and disappointed. Amid demands by the Fatah leadership to take strong measures against Israel, Abbas is unsure what policy to adopt.
- Abbas serves as chairman of the Palestine Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Fatah political/military organization.
- Abbas is stepping up coordination with King Abdullah of Jordan and preparing for the UN General Assembly session in September.
The IDF’s successful overnight operation in Nablus on July 23-24, 2022, in which two terrorists planning an attack at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus were killed, deeply embarrassed the Palestinian Authority. The raid intensified the anger toward Abbas in the Palestinian street for continuing the security coordination with Israel even as the IDF eliminates operatives of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is part of the Fatah military wing.
Since Biden visited east Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the PA has been at a loss. Abbas has no good tidings for the residents of the territories. The results of Biden’s visit were what he expected, and now he has to decide what to do going forward.
Sources close to Abbas say the PLO Executive Committee will soon convene to discuss implementing the PLO Central Council’s resolutions on freezing the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its agreements, including security coordination.
Two schools of thought prevail among the Fatah top brass. The more militant outlook is represented by the organization’s Deputy Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul, who argued that Israel only understands force. After the killing of the terrorists in Nablus, Al-Aloul asserted that “Israel only understands the language of resistance” – in other words, terror attacks.
Hussein al-Sheikh and Majid Freij lead the pragmatic school. Al-Sheikh, considered a possible successor of Abbas, told the New York Times on July 15, 2022, that he does not think Israel “is serious about ending the occupation, so Palestinians have no option other than to keep working within the current arrangement.”1
With his extensive diplomatic experience, Abbas is well aware that by resorting to violence and terror, the Palestinians will only hurt their cause. At the moment, though, notwithstanding Biden’s reaffirmation of his commitment to the two-state solution, the Palestinians do not have a political horizon.
During Biden’s visit to the Middle East, he pledged to provide the Palestinians economic assistance for two hospitals in east Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). But the Palestinians’ demands – which include reopening the American consulate in east Jerusalem, reopening the PLO office in Washington, and removing the PLO from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations – went unanswered.
According to a Palestinian report that has not been denied, Biden told Abbas, “It would take the messiah to fulfill all of your demands.”
Although the Palestinians will try to devise a new strategy, Abbas knows that he must remain pragmatic and avoid extreme measures – or find himself in a confrontation with the Biden administration that he can only lose. Moreover, the current political circumstances in Israel, amid an election campaign, mean that Abbas has no Israeli partner for the time being. The political status of Defense Minister Benny Gantz is uncertain, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid is in no hurry to meet with Abbas for fear that it would harm him electorally.
The prevailing assessment in the Fatah leadership is that Abbas will make a lot of media noise but do nothing to change the existing relations with Israel. That is also the advice of Hussein al-Sheikh and Majid Freij, seeking ways to calm the disappointed and seething Palestinian street.
The Biden administration deeply disappointed the PA. Biden is pressuring Abbas to support the concept of normalization between Israel and Arab countries. Abbas, for his part, sees this as the administration’s attempt to circumvent the Palestinian problem and staunchly refuses. Abbas is disheartened by Biden’s support for Israel, by the “Jerusalem Declaration,” and by the fact that Biden added another $1 billion – earmarked for Israel’s aerial defense capabilities – to the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. aid to Israel.
As the Fatah leadership sees it, with the November U.S. congressional elections approaching, the Biden administration is choosing to boost the bilateral ties with Israel and promote the normalization process and Israel’s integration in the region at the Palestinians’ expense.
The Palestinians’ desire to change the rules of the game with Israel has encountered serious obstacles, including the administration’s opposition, which is now seeking to manage the conflict and not resolve it. Nevertheless, Abbas cannot ignore President Biden’s wishes.
Coordinating with Jordan against Israel
What remains for the PA chairman, then, is to coordinate positions with King Abdullah of Jordan. On July 24, Abbas met with the Jordanian monarch in Amman to update him on his meetings with Biden and President Macron in Paris.
From Abbas’ standpoint, Biden’s visit was a failure. Therefore, Abbas discussed ideas with Abdullah about a diplomatic initiative at the September UN General Assembly session to emphasize the Palestinian problem’s centrality to the international community.
Abbas and Abdullah view with great trepidation the possible return of the Likud Party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, to lead Israel as an outcome of the elections.
Senior PA sources say Jordan’s role is “critical.” Abdullah has the ear of Biden and European leaders as well.
According to knowledgeable sources, Jordan and the PA will demand that any progress on economic cooperation in the region be conditioned on renewing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Abbas and Abdullah will continue to meet in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to see what messages Abbas tries to convey in his anticipated General Assembly address; each year, he tries to come up with “surprises.”
Meanwhile, he emphasizes that, despite his 87 years, he is in good health. After returning from Jordan, he underwent “routine” checkups at a hospital in Ramallah. His confidant Hussein al-Sheikh told the media that “the state of his health is good.”
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