In an exhausting two-hour speech before the PLO Central Council on January 14, 2018, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) provided the morning papers with many headlines. Abbas laid into Trump saying Yehreb Beitak, a common insult which translates as “may your house be demolished.” Many Israeli commentators see this as a clear sign that the Palestinian leader has “lost his marbles,” or in other words, “broken the rules”. Abbas said “no” to the “deal of the century” that Trump has been talking about since he met Netanyahu at the White House a year ago, but Abbas did not explain why he refused. He only stressed that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is for him a casus belli, and he will not accept any American role in the Mideast peace process.
Trump’s “deal of the century” was passed on to Mahmoud Abbas by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), as reported by the New York Times on December 4, 2017. According to the newspaper, MBS urged Abbas to accept the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis as the capital of the future Palestinian state, and to agree to a territorial compromise according to which most settlements will remain intact. The Palestinians would receive a mini-state with limited sovereignty and no territorial contiguity. The meeting between MBS and Abbas took place two weeks after a special visit by President Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner handed over to the Saudis a plan prepared by three Orthodox Jewish envoys: Kushner, Ambassador David Friedman, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator. The three adopted the worldview of gambling magnate and Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, one of Trump’s main sponsors and owner of the freebie newspaper Israel Today. He is noted for his absolute support of Netanyahu.
Two weeks after Mahmoud Abbas’s fateful visit to Saudi Arabia on December 6, 2017, Trump declared his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The US State Department tried to mollify the impression, perhaps to curb angry reactions in the occupied territories and in the Arab world, by pointing out that the Trump declaration did not define the borders of the city, which are still subject to negotiation between the sides. Throughout that period, Mahmoud Abbas was subjected to heavy pressure to get him to say “yes” to the American proposal that had Saudi Arabia’s blessing, but to no avail. When Trump returned from his vacation this year, he turned to Twitter, and in a series of 14 tweets on various topics, he wrote in a clear, although disjointed manner: “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate… We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Mahmoud Abbas’s reaction in the speech to the Central Council, “May your house be demolished,” expressed frustration. But it is only declarative, and the impression is that Abbas convened the Council so that he could vent his frustration and, in effect, thwart any practical decision. His frustration stems not only from Trump’s actions. His main problem is the Arab world – the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians – who are fed up with the Palestinian question and want to remove it from the table in order to deal with the real strategic threat—which is Iran, not the Israeli occupation.
Mahmoud Abbas has additional troubles. He is facing an Arab front that is pressuring him to surrender, and he is also isolated at home. Despite his entreaties, Hamas declined to participate in the Central Council meeting, which overshadowed all efforts to close ranks and show solidarity on the Jerusalem issue. Moreover, attempts to reach a position paper acceptable to all factions of the PLO, especially those that do not include Hamas, have failed. Abbas is not interested in reaching any decision that would formally annul the Oslo Accords. The significance of such a move would be the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is a creation of the Oslo Accords. Abbas also wants to continue the security coordination with Israel, which is sacred to him. While he declares that Israel ceases to be committed to the Oslo Accords, he remains committed to them.
What is Abbas willing to do? He is prepared to continue the popular nonviolent resistance and send young Palestinians to demonstrate and be killed (in small numbers) in clashes with IDF soldiers. Of course, he is willing to continue negotiations with Hamas until the latter disarms and recognizes the PA’s authority in Gaza. He is determined to fight terrorism and continue a dialogue with the Israeli peace camp. On the political level, the plan is to work with hundreds of different international institutions in order to gain recognition of Palestine as a state. For Mahmoud Abbas, the PA is already a governing body of a state – without its own currency, without borders, without sovereignty – in fact a virtual state that exists by inertia.
But in response to Trump’s threats to stop aid to the Palestinians, a “senior Palestinian official” told the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat in a moment of impressive honesty: “The dismantling of the Palestinian Authority is not in an Israeli or American interest. In the event that the PA collapses, it will be Israel that will have to provide the services as an occupying power. Now the Palestinian Authority is receiving aid from Arab countries and the rest of the world in order to finance these services and if it collapses, Israel will face these problems alone. The dismantling of the PA will strengthen the aspiration for a one-state solution, and that is something no Israeli government wants.”
The current arrangement, the existence of a PA that provides services and security, that settles for a virtual state, and that is ready to keep the solution on the back burner indefinitely, plays into the hands of the Israeli Right. The Right can continue humming the tune, No partner. It is also great for the Israeli Left, which can continue humming the opposite tune, There is a partner. The consensus is that a one-state solution would be bad for all sides: Fatah in Ramallah, Hamas in Gaza, the Right in Jerusalem and the Left in Tel Aviv.
In his fiery speech, Mahmoud Abbas expressed anger at the Jews and Israel. According to him, “Colonialism created Israel to perform a certain function. It is a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism, but rather used the Jews as a tool under the slogan of the Promised Land.” On these things the Israeli Right will celebrate, saying: “We told you! The man is an anti-Semite.” And the Left, for its part, will weep over the fact that the Partner once again rips off the mask of being both “Jewish and democratic.” In the meantime, this ugly Occupation, which erodes every enlightened part of the Jews-only democracy, and preserves a military dictatorship in the occupied territories, will continue unabated.
An interesting point to be noted is that in his speech of anger toward Trump, Mahmoud Abbas found it necessary to confess that the Arab Spring is no more than a Winter that has brought disorder to the Middle East. Thus, Abbas joins many in the Arab world and certainly, in Israel as well. The reason is simple: the Arab Spring expressed young people’s desire for democracy and social justice. In light of the despair that prevails on the Palestinian street, the overwhelming majority of young Palestinians between the ages of 18 and 25 do not believe in a Palestinian state, and aspire to one state. This is the generation of the future. Like their brothers in the Arab world, young Palestinians understand very well the nature of the Palestinian Authority, which is like other Arab regimes they aim to overthrow. Netanyahu supports demonstrations in Iran, Mahmoud Abbas does not. Like all the Arab dictators, Abbas knows that what happens in Tehran may repeat itself in the West Bank.
*Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman