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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Why Did the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas Avoid the UN Secretary-General when He Toured the Region?

Filed under: Palestinians, Turkey

Why Did the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas Avoid the UN Secretary-General when He Toured the Region?
Abbas addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 (UN Photo)

On August 28, 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Israel, Ramallah, and Gaza in the Palestinian territories. One of the surprising developments was the cancellation of a meeting scheduled with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who preferred to go to Turkey and meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Palestinian sources gave two explanations why the Palestinian leader cancelled the meeting and why he preferred a meeting with the Turkish leader.

One explanation was that he did not want to hear Guterres’ position about the upcoming convening of the United Nations in New York in September. In this regard, so it was understood in the Muqata’a (PA headquarters in Ramallah), Guterres’ meeting was a continuation of the visit of the U.S. delegation led by Jared Kushner that pressured Abbas to “behave himself” at the international meeting. That meant not addressing the UN General Assembly with extreme anti-Israeli messages, not applying to the Security Council for full membership as a state in the UN, and not applying to UN agencies for membership.

The moderate Arab countries – Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are pressuring Abbas along the same line, and another meeting between the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, and the radical Palestinian foreign minister, Riyadh Malki, is likely to take place either in Amman or in Ramallah.

The point the Arab states are emphasizing is that “we are with Trump.” They demand the Palestinians align with their pro-Trump policy.

This line of policy is very difficult for the Palestinians to accept. The foreign minister, a former Popular Front activist, is full-heartedly anti-American and not involved in any of the policies that relate to the United States. He feels more at home in Third World countries, such as Venezuela.

To express his rejection of the policies offered by the Arabs, immediately after the meeting in Cairo with the Arab foreign ministers, Riyadh Malki organized a pro-Venezuela event in Ramallah exactly when the Trump administration and Venezuela headed straight into a collision course.

It is also very difficult for Mahmoud Abbas to accept Arab and American demands. Our sources informed us that at this point the Palestinians will not pursue the policy of joining UN agencies and will not apply for full membership in the UN – the American delegation told him that such a move will meet an American veto, and the Arabs want to spare President Trump this provocation.

According to our sources, Mahmoud Abbas did not agree to modify his speech, and in this regard, he will address the UN General Assembly in the way he sees fit. Our assumption is that in the forthcoming meeting of the foreign ministers, the Arabs will also pressure Malki on the speech content. But Malki is not the address for this message, and the foreign ministers may have to meet Abbas himself.

Hence, Abbas avoided the UN Secretary-General to avoid hearing the message from the highest authority in UN himself. Guterres was about to tell him that clashing with Trump from the UN podium is a bad idea because of the American president’s antipathy toward the UN.

Guterres’ Message on Gaza Was Undelivered

There was a second reason why Mahmoud Abbas avoided seeing the UN secretary-general: Gaza. He knew that Guterres was about to plead with him to soften the sanctions against Gaza, and he did not want to hear that message. Indeed, the purpose of his Turkey visit was to secure support for his Gaza policy, and according to our sources, the visit failed.

Mahmoud Abbas and Antonio Guterres in Addis Ababa
Last Meeting, January 30, 2017, in Addis Ababa. PA President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Abbas sought to tell Erdogan to handle Gaza only through Ramallah channels. He wanted to block Hamas bypassing his sanctions by applying directly to Turkey for help. Erdogan, however, suggested instead that he will act as mediator because he has good relations “with both sides.” Hence, Erdogan put his Muslim Brotherhood partners in Hamas on the same level with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Abbas insisted that Hamas should dismantle their “Gaza Committee” which is regarded in Ramallah as a rival government to Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s in Ramallah.

Going to Turkey was also an expression of displeasure with Egypt that is now courting Abbas’ principal rival in Fatah, Muhammad Dahlan. According to reports received in the Muqata’a, talks are now centered on Dahlan becoming the interior minister in Hamas’ committee, and with this, Egypt will recognize the “committee.”

This eventuality appears far-fetched and probably won’t happen. Hamas is not going the surrender security responsibilities to Dahlan, and Egypt will not give a formal or informal recognition to Hamas’ committee in Gaza, but the mere reports and rumors caused Abbas to jump to Turkey.

In conclusion, Abbas undiplomatically canceled a meeting with UN secretary-general and preferred to go to Erdogan instead. He could have flown to Turkey a day later, but Palestinian sources told us that he wanted to refrain from being pressured on the issue of the September UN meetings and Gazan sanctions. As far as Gaza is concerned, Erdogan would not help Abbas. We assume that Erdoğan will support Abbas on the UN issue if the Palestinian leader decides to confront the United States after all.