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Despite shortcomings, Abbas remains vital for peace deal

Aug 08,2017 - Last updated at Aug 08,2017

As if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not have enough problems and challenges on his hands, the US Senate is about to pass a legislation that would compel the State Department to cut off US funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) unless it stops paying monthly stipends to families of convicted Palestinian assailants accused of committing “acts of terror” against US and Israeli citizens. The bill, which fails to recognise the fact that Palestinians have been enduring the longest occupation in modern times, now enjoys bi-partisan support and is heavily backed by Israel’s right-wing government which accuses the Palestinian president of incitement to violence.

The US is one of the largest contributors of foreign aid to the PA, second only to the EU and European member states. On average the PA receives about $350 million annually from the US under various aid and assistance programmes. The loss of such a considerable sum will almost certainly hasten the collapse of the already cash strapped PA; resulting in chaos in the occupied territories with dire consequences for both Israel and the Palestinians.

Abbas is already feeling the pressure and has suspended salary payments to Palestinian prisoners belonging to Hamas who had been released under the Shalit deal of 2014. But that step was seen as part of the economic war that Abbas is waging against Hamas in Gaza. If Congress passes the new bill, Abbas will have little time to take measures to suspend all payments to Palestinian prisoners and their families, numbering in the thousands. He will soon find himself in an unenviable position: Either he suspends payments under a five-decade-old programme and face a popular backlash that could easily topple him, or risk losing US financial — and political — backing that would bring down the PA and leave him in a political wilderness.

The US political support is more crucial than the financial one at this point. Abbas has pinned high hopes on the Trump administration to kick-start the peace process even though it is looking more likely that the White House is unable, or unwilling, to unveil a new initiative at this stage.

Furthermore, Abbas has painted himself into a corner by suspending the controversial security coordination between the PA and Israel following the outbreak of the recent crisis at Al Haram Al Sharif. For years he has been subject of an Israeli campaign to discredit him as a peace partner; accused of encouraging incitement against Israel even though he had faced popular outrage for condemning Palestinian solitary attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers and ridiculing the ideas of armed resistance and a new intifada.

His Fateh movement, the largest Palestinian faction within the now crippled PLO, is fiercely divided with younger cadre growing increasingly frustrated with Abbas, 82, and possible successors. The health of the Palestinian president, who has been in control since 2005, is also an issue raising questions about his ability to hang on to power for much longer.

Aside from all these problems, Abbas has dug himself into a hole by declaring an economic war against his main rivals in Gaza. Hamas, which has been ruling Gaza since 2007, has resisted pressure to hand over power back to the PA. Repeated attempts at reaching national reconciliation and ending inter-Palestinian rift have met with failure. Both sides accuse each other of reneging on commitments. But Abbas has taken the unprecedented steps of terminating the salaries of thousands of Hamas PA employees and asking Israel to cut down electricity supplies to the beleaguered Gaza Strip.

 These latest measures appear to have backfired with the new Hamas leadership moving to mend fences with Egypt and reconciling with former foe, ousted Fateh leader and Abbas rival, Mahmoud Dahlan.

There has been a flurry of latest initiatives to end the Hamas-Fateh rift, but it appears that Abbas is weary of Israeli and US reactions if he does yield to Hamas’ demands of rehiring their employees and reinstating the hung Palestinian Legislative Council. In addition, he, Fatah and Hamas will have to face the prospect of being tested at the polls once overdue presidential and legislative elections are held.

The Israeli onslaught against Abbas, led mainly by Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners each for their own political purposes, is not embraced by the more sober Israeli military establishment. Joint security coordination has served Israeli interests well and the collapse of the PA would open a Pandora’s Box for Israel’s occupation authorities. Furthermore, there does not appear to be a strong successor to Abbas at this point — apart from jailed Fateh leader Marwan Al Barghouti. Dahlan is waiting in the wings but his dubious relations with Israel will work against him in the polls.

Despite the shortcomings that Abbas may appear to have in the eyes of his critics, whether Arabs, Israelis, Americans or Palestinians, he has become essential to salvaging a feeble last hope for an acceptable peaceful settlement.

This is probably why King Abdullah decided to pay a symbolically important visit to Abbas on Monday in Ramallah, the first in five years. Abbas remains the Palestinians’ best hope for unity and for a possible revival of peace talks with Israel — for now. But the Palestinian patriarch faces cumbersome challenges and he will have to plan his next steps carefully.

 

 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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