Abbas's impossible choices
In a rage about protests against his rule, Mahmoud Abbas threatens to resign while questions remain over his efficacy if he continues, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The scene was very clear: angry Palestinian youth in downtown Ramallah beating effigies of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with their shoes, amid demonstrations protesting against unbearable economic conditions, price hikes and higher taxes. Similar protests took place across the West Bank and greatly upset Abbas who was not only surprised by the scale of rage, but enraged when he found out that most of the protesters belonged to the faction he is leading, Fatah.
Abbas was furious and decided to postpone his trip to India by one day to meet with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) Executive Committee and representatives of Palestinian factions in the PLO. Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the meeting that took place in Abbas's residence in Ramallah was very tense.
Abbas was livid and spoke with unprecedented anger and harshness. Reliable sources said that some participants tried to blame Hamas for organising the protests but Abbas rejected the insinuations and blamed factions within the PLO and Fatah itself. "I will not stand for demonstrations and protests organised against me at this sensitive time," he reportedly told PLO factions. "I will not take responsibility for the impossible conditions we are living; you either accept my resignation immediately or we should hold new presidential elections that I will not contest."
Abbas viewed the sweeping protests in the West Bank as a referendum on his political programme, and accused PLO factions of creating operation rooms to incite the public to demonstrate against him. He told participants in the meeting that they have only two choices: his immediate resignation or new parliamentary and presidential elections without him. The president said that he could not afford even a few small protests against his policies.
While Abbas attacked PLO factions for their role in the demonstrations, once he calmed down he acknowledged that Israel bears all the responsibility for the tough conditions in the West Bank. He conceded that Israel's conduct has largely limited his margin of manoeuvrability, adding that he is no longer able to deliver any indication that the political settlement of the struggle with Israel will amount to much. Abbas added that he is no longer able to justify continuing negotiations at a time when Israel continues settlement building in the West Bank and the Judaisation of Jerusalem, while ignoring the hostile actions of Jewish settlers against Palestinians.
Abbas blamed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the stalled peace process, stating that since Netanyahu came to power three year ago the process has stood still. He also blamed the US for "baiting" Netanyahu to continue extremist positions, protesting that Washington is putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) instead of penalising Netanyahu's government for its intransigence.
Abbas noted that the US administration was the first to impose financial sanctions on the PA with the aim of pressuring the Palestinian leadership not to go the UN to ask for membership for Palestine in the General Assembly. He added that the US is also punishing the PA for refusing to go back to the negotiating table.
At the end of his vitriol, the president said that he is willing to announce the cancellation of the Oslo Accords and the Paris Protocol.
Although the meeting was inconclusive about what Abbas would do next, it was clear to all those in attendance -- who had previously listened to Abbas talk scores of times -- that this was the first time that the president appeared so frustrated about reaching a political settlement and any possibility that the US would do anything to change the status quo.
The source said that although Abbas avoided blaming Arab states during his address, in private with his advisers and confidantes he expressed disappointment that Arab countries have procrastinated on sending financial assistance to the PA to help end the economic crisis. Abbas is especially upset about intelligence that some Gulf States are funding organisations affiliated to his archenemy Mohamed Dahlan who was fired from Fatah and stripped of all his posts within the faction.
Sources close to Abbas said that Dahlan is sending money to organisations inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the aim of seducing Fatah followers back to his camp.
Despite the drama, it is clear that Abbas is hesitating. Although a decision was taken to go to the UN at the end of this month to ask for UN membership for Palestine, Abbas's political adviser, Nemr Hamad, said the decision was not final. Obviously, Abbas is still worried about the reactions of the US and Israel towards any moves at the UN, especially since there is no Arab consensus on supporting Palestinian UN action.
Although the president strongly criticised Israel's conduct, Netanyahu's government quickly realised that the demonstrations protesting socioeconomic conditions in the West Bank could quickly evolve into a third Intifada against the Israeli occupation. Tel Aviv also fears that these protests would topple the PA and usher in Islamist rule in Ramallah at this very sensitive and delicate time for Israel.
Eliyahu Iliyad, a national security expert and former colonel in Israel's military intelligence, said that Israel realises the dangers of the economic crisis in the West Bank and its implications for Israel's security. Iliyad stated that if conditions exploded in the West Bank, it would be a small step away from re-launching bomb attacks in the heart of Israeli cities.
Accordingly, Netanyahu quickly took steps to assist the PA, including transferring tens of millions of dollars belonging to the PA that Israel had withheld, and issuing construction licenses in Area C, which makes up 62 per cent of West Bank territories that Israel had banned Palestinians from building on. Tel Aviv also allowed thousands of Palestinian workers to return to work in Israel. But all these measures were not enough to appease Palestinian rage.
More protests broke out again in the West Bank, causing Palestinian Finance Minister Nabi Qasees to warn that the PA's severe economic crisis threatens to abort efforts to create a Palestinian state. "The two-state solution is under threat if the PA is no longer able to continue its work and prepare for this," Qasees told a meeting of representatives from donor countries. "The PA could collapse, and this could happen quickly."
He decried the fact that the international community pledged $300 million to the PA and then went back on its word. According to the World Bank and IMF, the PA has deficit of $400 million until the end of the year.
Talal Okal, a Palestinian writer and political analyst, said that widespread protests were not only triggered by price hikes and raised taxes, but also "all economic, living and political conditions, their implications and consequences". Okal believes the PA cannot cancel the Oslo Accords, "despite their unfair terms", adding that the real problem is the Israeli occupation and that resistance should continue since it is the only way to end all economic and political problems.
"The experience of our people demonstrates that Palestinians were never as united on one issue as they are about resisting occupation," he explained. "Resistance can take many shapes; popular resistance is better and most successful in bringing down occupation without the people and their cause suffering grave losses."
One question remains: Is President Abbas willing to pay the price for relying on popular resistance and to stop gambling on relations with the US and negotiating with Israel? Abbas is facing very tough and complicated choices, but it is doubtful he will chose popular resistance. He would likely resign rather than take that route.