Angry, sad and ill, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been stuck at home in Ramallah for a few months now. COVID-19 is forcing him to be extra careful. At his age, 85, with many other medical conditions, Abbas cannot allow himself to do otherwise. But according to reports from his inner circle, his glumness is mostly due to the P.A.’s ongoing economic and diplomatic isolation.
After the very public slap in the face from the Arab League, which effectively rejected the Palestinians’ request to condemn the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Abbas and his speakers let loose, cursing and scolding the Gulf Arab states.
But the appearance of Bandar Bin Sultan, a former top-ranking Saudi diplomat, on Al-Arabiyya, and the very public finger that the former head of Saudi intelligence flipped the Palestinians has shut their mouths. Bin Sultan’s speech marked a 180-degree turn by the Saudis when it comes to the Palestinians. Even if Saudi Arabia is the last of the moderate Arab states to sign a peace or normalization deal with Israel, at least according to Bin Sultan, the order has flipped.
First, the Arab world will normalize with Israel, and then, in the second stage, Israel and the Palestinians will work out an arrangement. Bin Sultan made it clear that the Palestinian leadership over the years had brought it on themselves, from former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had delusions of grandeur, to Abbas himself, who “runs away from solutions” and never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Bin Sultan described the stumbling bunch as ungrateful, traitorous and a leadership that has repeatedly failed.
The criticism of Abbas and the line he is taking are not being voiced outside the P.A. alone. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has recently been publishing remarks by former senior Palestinian officials warning Abbas to change his recalcitrant stance. Notable officials saying this include Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, Ashraf al-Ajrami and Ziad Abu Zayyad.
Abu Zaida, who formerly served as minister of prisoners’ affairs in the P.A. and is a member of Fatah with close ties to Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan, urges the Palestinians to realize that they “are no longer the center of the universe, and that the Palestinian issue is no longer the top priority of the Arab world and Arab nations, who are also concerned with their own interests and other disasters befalling them.”
Abu Zaida points to the hypocrisy of the P.A., which condemns the UAE for normalizing with Israel, but has never spoken out against the de facto normalization between Israel and Qatar, which has existed since 1996, or the establishment of an Israeli diplomatic mission there. He says that the P.A. has even cooperated with Arab entities’ normalization with Israel, when it was in its own interests to do so.
Nor does Abu Zaida refrain from criticizing Turkey, which maintains extensive trade and security ties with Israel, while also criticizing the deal between Israel and the UAE. He also mentions that even former Saudi intelligence minister Gen. (res.) Anwar Eshki, visited Israel openly and was accompanied by a senior Palestinian official, after the visit was labeled “acceptable normalization”—as in normalization based on the Palestinian issue.
The way Abu Zaida sees it, the Palestinian issue has lost much of its sanctity in the eyes of the world, even the Arab world, “because of the internal strife and divide … because we failed to maintain our people’s unity … because we failed to build state institutions based on transparency and honesty…”
Al-Ajrami, another Fatah man, calls out the P.A.’s diplomatic behavior over the last 20 years. He recalls the Palestinians’ failure to take down “the lying Israeli narrative that has put the failure of the peace process on the Palestinians.”
Mostly, Al-Ajrami warns the Palestinians to recognize their diplomatic errors and to come up with a new, coherent diplomatic vision and work plan. Notable Palestinian mistakes Al-Ajrami cites include the violent struggle of the Second Intifada, even after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which created a global consensus against terrorism. That policy, he says, gave Israel a reason to build its security barrier, led the Palestinians to suffer heavy casualties, and laid the foundation for Hamas to take control of the Gaza Strip.
Abu Zayyad, the PA’s former minister for Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, fleshes out the claims against the P.A. and calls on Palestinian leaders to drop the language of curses, insults and attacks, its phrasing of choice after the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or after the UAE and Bahrain announced their intent to normalize ties with Israel. Abu Ziyad recommends that the Palestinians adopt gentler diplomatic language that will bring other countries around to the Palestinian issue and put it back at the top of the agenda.
According to Abu Zayyad, the Palestinian diplomatic discourse lacks any dynamic elements and the ability to tailor itself to “new methods of propaganda,” thereby making it “a worn-out recording of clichés that the world can’t listen to anymore.”
Abu Zayyad points out something especially interesting: “We didn’t notice that [U.S. President Donald] Trump made it clear that his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not define the borders of the territory that will fall under Israeli sovereignty, and that these borders would be established through negotiations … Instead, our total rejection and competition among ourselves to put out the most curses and insults of Trump and his administration … led Trump to go back on all the ‘openings’ his first announcement left, and ended with the statement that Jerusalem was not on the table.”
It’s hard not to identify the real target of all this criticism, but Abbas is refusing to change. One of his recent decisions, which came to light in a report published by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, was to reestablish a bank that would skirt the obstacles that Israel and the international community were putting in the way of the P.A.’s payments to terrorist prisoners and their families, making sure that the money would continue to be deposited into their accounts. According to the Palestinians, some $300 million is paid out to about 12,000 families per year.
The decision to found a bank came after former GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan issued an administrative order banning Palestinian banks from assisting terrorist activity after Israel passed, but did not implement, a law to deduct the amount of money the P.A. pays out in “terrorist stipends” from the tax money Israel collects for the P.A.
After Padan issued his order, branches of the Cairo Amman Bank and others announced that they would be freezing money transfers to Palestinian terrorist prisoners and their families, leading to violent demonstrations and even shootings in Jenin and Bethlehem. Abbas rushed to set up a committee to solve the matter and the result was a new bank. Its logo, by the way, features the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and the gates to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Abbas declared: “Even if we are left with a penny, we will pay it to the families of the shahids [martyrs] and prisoners. They are a select group and we believe that it will pave the way to an independent Palestine. They are stars in the firmament of the Palestinian struggle, and they take precedence over everything.”
‘Necessity and maneuvering’
Meanwhile, even though Israel (under Benny Gantz as defense minister) stopped deducting the payments to terrorists and their families from the P.A. tax revenue, Abbas refused to accept any of the tax money at all, which made the economic crisis in the P.A. worse. Currently, there are $2.5 billion that the P.A. is refusing to take from Israel if Israel does not promise, in writing, to renege on its plans to declare sovereignty in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
Abbas asked the European Union for other economic aid, but the E.U. told him that he had no grounds on which to refuse the tax money Israel was offering, because the “annexation” had been postponed or possibly canceled under the normalization agreements. The E.U. even urged Abbas to reinstate the civil and security cooperation with Israel that the P.A. cut off after Israel announced its sovereignty plan.
Abbas’ policies are doing the P.A. economy no favors—not in regular times and certainly not since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their jobs, a quarter to a third of private businesses in Judea and Samaria closed and about half of all checks written in the P.A. bounce.
The P.A. security forces are also showing weakness, mostly against weapons stockpiling, which is mainly happening in the refugee camps as the warring factions prepare themselves for a war to succeed Abbas.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, reported last week that Fatah deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul was buying large quantities of weapons for local militias ahead of that battle. The Dahlan camp is also arming itself, mostly in refugee camps in Jenin and Balata.
One official from the security sector said that these weapons are currently not being used against the IDF, but will be used to establish centers of power and deterrence for the day after Abbas is no longer in power. However, no one can guarantee that the weapons—thousands of rifles and machine guns—won’t be used against Israel.
Abbas, who is hoping that Joe Biden wins the U.S. election, is searching for a place somewhere along the Muslim Brotherhood axis, which is operating against the bloc of the Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Israel. He allowed Jibril Rajoub to travel to Turkey and meet with Hamas leaders, through Turkish and Qatari mediators, in an attempt to make peace among the Palestinians themselves. This angered Egypt, which has held the job of intra-Palestinian mediator in recent years.
Participants in the meetings in Istanbul tried to reach a deal to bring Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad into the PLO and hold Palestinian legislative elections, something Israel does not intend to allow. They agreed to “renew the popular resistance.” Abbas also asked Qatar and Turkey for some immediate financial assistance, half a billion dollars, so he could pay the salaries of P.A. government employees.
Pinhas Inbari, a Palestinian affairs researcher, sees Abbas’ recent steps as “acts of desperation.”
Inbari thinks that, at their core, these are steps of “necessity and maneuvering,” and assesses that they do not indicate any real chance in Abbas’ policy of not allowing terrorism or a third intifada.
A couple of weeks ago, Inbari points out, “a joint committee for the Third Intifada was established with a lot of noise and fireworks, but it died down quickly because the public did not respond to its calls. There’s no real impetus for an intifada.”
“Anyone who lives on Twitter and the Internet might get a different impression, but the street is what really matters, and right now, the street is not lit up.”
The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet, however, think differently, and are seeing constant attempts at terrorist acts. But even they think that as long as Abbas is in power, things will remain more or less under control. After he is gone—that will be another story.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.