From the time he took over the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it was obvious that Mahmoud Abbas was going to have a difficult road ahead of him. Replacing Yasser Arafat, the charismatic leader of the Palestinian national movement was tough enough. But, among other challenges, Abbas had to wind down the second intifada without destroying the PLO, try to restore some of the faith Arafat had squandered with his autocratic tendencies, cronyism and human rights abuses, and walk the impossible tightrope of fighting against the Israeli occupation while working with Israel under the terms of the Oslo Accords.
History is unlikely to judge Abbas kindly. The deck may have been stacked against him, but even within that context, he has performed poorly.
The recent uproar over Abbas’s speech to the PLO Central Council was a microcosm of Abbas’s tenure. The context of the speech was set by the United States, and the Trump administration’s decision to be uncompromisingly supportive of Israeli policies. The US had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that is a crucial lifeline for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, and repeatedly criticized the Palestinians for refusing to kowtow to Israeli and American demands to revive the false hope of negotiations.
Abbas’s speech was fiery anger, a reflection of a man who, at 82, has come to realize that he, like his predecessor, was not going to be the first president of Palestine. More than that, the speech reflected a man who had come face to face with the reality that his strategy had been based on a false premise. For years, both critics and supporters of Fatah, Abbas’s party, had been shouting to the heavens that the United States was Israel’s close ally. Contrary to Abbas’s oft-stated belief, this didn’t mean that the US could get Israel to make concessions but, rather, that the US could not possibly be an honest broker. Even the well-intentioned Barack Obama could not break out of that paradigm.
Instead, Donald Trump forced Abbas to face the fact that the US was there to guard Israel’s interests. Abbas could no longer fool himself, and his speech reflected his anger at the inescapable reality. He criticized other Arab states, Hamas, and Great Britain, all of whom he, correctly, sees as being cards in the deck stacked against him. But the United States drew by far the most ire.
This could have been a pivotal moment. This could have been the moment that Abbas announced a new Palestinian strategy that did not rely on the good will of Israel or the good graces of the United States. But even though Abbas and other Palestinian leaders had, in the weeks prior to the speech, hinted that a new strategy was needed, none was forthcoming. Abbas said that the Oslo process was dead and that the United States could no longer be the sole or even lead mediator, he said little about what was to be done instead.
Abbas said that Palestine would join more international treaties and bodies and called for more states to recognize the state that does not exist. But these are years-old strategies that have gotten the Palestinians nothing. The fact that the Palestinians had refrained from such actions earlier only shows how badly boxed in they were by the US-Israel axis. Yes, Israel always expresses annoyance at these things, presumably because for a moment they remind the world that the international consensus has long been that the Palestinians have the right of self-determination. But it soon passes and Palestinian membership in these bodies or treaties becomes the new normal without changing anything on the ground or in the diplomatic arena.
Failing with Europe
There is one body that has an interest in the two-state solution and the potential to pressure Israel into agreeing to what has been the international consensus for decades: the European Union. Any long-term strategy that has any hope of success must focus on the EU.
Abbas seems to have finally come to accept this fact. He has urged the EU to get more involved in reviving the peace process. But his speech to the PLO Central Council only made it harder for the EU to do that.
Abbas said that Israel was a “colonial project” that had “no connection to Judaism.” These points are, of course, a constant source of thorny debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists. But beyond an academic debate, it’s irrelevant. The only plausible reason to debate the nature of the Zionism of a century ago is to debate whether Israel should continue to be. The Israeli right very much wants to keep that debate alive because it allows their ultra-nationalism to flourish in an alternate universe where the Palestinians can threaten the continued existence of Israel. But the Palestinians can’t, and as such, any political strategy must be based on the reality that the state of Israel will continue. Its future may be in the context of a two-state reality as has been envisioned by the international consensus since the 1980s. It may be a future where Zionist Jews and all Palestinians have reached an accommodation to live together in a single state (as much as I do not consider this to be realistic). But in any case, Israel will continue to be.
Abbas’s dredging up of these ancient debates does more than merely rankle Israelis and their supporters. It also makes it harder to get the European behemoth to begin to change course, and that is where Abbas, once again, fails the test of vision and leadership.
At this moment, there is no possibility that the European Union—which is not only a major trading partner with Israel but also the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians, and therefore is footing much of the bill for the occupation—will put any significant pressure on Israel to change its policies regarding the Palestinians and the occupation. Nor will any of the countries in Europe that Israel cares about—the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, and others—exert that pressure. There are many reasons for this, including security and diplomatic concerns. But there are also political concerns that stem from a collective and deserved guilt over Europe’s historical treatment of Jews. While Abbas’s words have not stirred the sort of firestorm in Europe that they did in some sectors in the United States, they still irritate that wound in the European psyche.
There is real potential for change in Europe. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and irritation with Israel’s often arrogant and sometimes insulting behavior toward Europe creates potential for a political shift there. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is stronger in Europe and has made more progress there than in the United States.
But the same problem that has stymied groups in the US that support Palestinian rights dogs their counterparts in Europe: the Palestinian leadership. While constantly having to dodge spurious accusations of “supporting terrorism” as well as Islamophobia (a very serious concern in Europe as well as the US), the mainstream Palestinian leadership has failed to articulate a coherent strategy, which cripples international efforts.
Abbas just demonstrated how that dynamic works. He made his plea to Europe in the wake of his speech. The EU refrained from criticizing his speech (much to the chagrin of the Israeli right), but their response to Abbas’s requests was telling.
EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini reaffirmed the EU’s support for a two-state solution, but also urged both sides “to speak and act wisely and consistently with a sense of responsibility.” This was obviously a rebuke of Abbas’s speech to the PLO.
The Palestinian people suffer every minute of every day under the yoke of occupation. Many who support their rights, myself included, have been saying for years that the United States cannot be an honest broker, whether it is led by a man with good intentions like Barack Obama or a reckless and bigoted man like Donald Trump. That reality is finally gaining wide acceptance thanks to Trump’s actions and words.
But that is only helpful if another party gets involved. It will take years to move Europe in the direction of material action, but it can happen. Israel will refuse to comply, it will kick and scream, but if Europe curtails its trade or refuses to continue bankrolling the occupation, Israel will have no choice but to negotiate. The EU could well get other powerful countries to help in such a scenario.
This would be a herculean task. It means major change in European tactics and policies. That can only happen through widespread political pressure in Europe. That will be a fight, fought in a place where spurious accusations of anti-Semitism have much deeper historical and legal implications, especially at a time when genuine anti-Semitism in Europe as well as in the US is on the rise.
The odds against success are great, but there seems to be no better alternative. Those odds, however, edge into impossibility if the Palestinian leadership cannot overcome the obstacles of occupation and history and come up with the sort of strategy for success that has been missing since the first intifada, the Palestinians’ only significant victory to date. Abbas’s successor, wherever he or she may come from and whenever he or she may arrive, must do better than he has.