Obama and Abbas’ fig leaf

Abbas and his colleagues have placed all their hopes on Obama instead of on the Palestinian people.

US President Barack Obama visit
"There was something pathetic about Abbas standing by Obama's side in Ramallah... Obama travels by private jet and armoured car, while Abbas cannot even move freely without Israel's permission," writes author [EPA]

The dust is settling after US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and Jordan, and it is now easier to see the extent of the debris he has left behind. It is perhaps at the geopolitical level that Obama has done the most damage – and that to the weakest party, the Palestinian authority, he met. The surprise reconciliation he engineered between Israel and Turkey has reversed the only regional realignment in the Palestinians’ favour for years. 

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly hopes to soften the blow of restoring normal relations with Israel, badly damaged after Israel’s lethal attack on the Mavi Marmara, by promising a solidarity visit to Gaza. Erdogan is also claiming, in the face of repeated Israeli denials, that he has secured an end to the siege of Gaza.  

However, the fact remains that Turkey, Israel and the US have all made concrete political and economic gains while Palestinians gained some empty gestures.  

The US gains better regional coordination in dealing with Syria and Iran. Israel and Turkey’s positions are strengthened in a turbulent neighbourhood, after losing strong allies in Egypt and Syria, respectively, with the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s brutal civil war. Israel is also hoping that the warming ties may ease its entry to NATO, which Turkey had previously blocked.   

On the economic front, Israel and Turkey can again collaborate on the development of Israel’s offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, as the Financial Times reminds us. A Turkish official even said that the rapprochement will help the two countries’ “intelligence officials get in touch with each other”. 

There is no mention of Turkey standing up for the right of the Palestinians to develop their own natural gas fieldsoff the coast of Gaza, a move Israel has blocked since the Palestinians refused to sell them the gas at knock down prices. Erdogan has an opportunity for a concrete expression of Turkish solidarity on this issue during his planned visit to Gaza, but Turkish state interests will no doubt prevail. 

Geopolitical loser

In short, the bifurcated Palestinian political leadership is the big geopolitical loser. This could not come at a worse time for both Hamas and Fatah. Iraq is still devastated by the US invasion of 2003, and Fatah lost a key ally in its efforts to maintain ascendancy over Hamas after the Mubarak regime fell. 

The Syrian civil war has cost Hamas an important base and alliances with Iran and Hezbollah. Hamas hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt would redress those losses have been dashed. Egypt has eased the border crossing at Rafah for individuals, but still limits the number who can enjoy such freedoms in line with the defunct European-US-Israeli agreement. Nor has Egypt fully opened the Rafah border to goods, leaving Gaza at Israel’s mercy for imports and exports. 

Worse, the Morsi government has recently cracked down on the underground tunnels serving Gaza’s economy much more forcefully than the Mubarak government ever did. Meanwhile, the Egyptian press has been waging a mini-campaign against Hamas and Gazans after the August 2012 attack on an Egyptian army base in Sinai that killed 16 soldiers, even though Hamas adamantly denies its involvement. 

One would think that these developments would push Fatah and Hamas to finally reconcile, but Abbas put reconciliation efforts on hold again until after the Obama visit in hopes of a renewed US push for peace.   

Unfortunately for Abbas, Obama used his remarks in Ramallah to insist the Palestinians enter direct negotiations without preconditions, not even the settlement freeze he himself had urged. At the same time, he insisted on preconditions for the Palestinians, who “must recognise that Israel will be a Jewish state”, effectively condemning the Palestinian citizens of Israel to perpetual second-class citizenship. His conversion has doubtless encouraged Israel’s most annexationist government to date to carry on with legislation to define itself as the national state of the Jewish people. 

There was something pathetic about Abbas standing by Obama’s side in Ramallah with the press corps addressing both as “Mr President”. Obama travels by private jet and armoured car. Abbas cannot even move freely without Israel’s permission, as it reminded him by briefly reducing his travel permit in retaliation for his first attempt to secure state membership of the UN. 

Way to broker negotiations

The Palestinian “Mr President” has no option to return to negotiations, his only remaining fig leaf, even though they cannot produce a sovereign state. Indeed, his negotiating team was reportedly trying hard to find some face-saving languagefor a return to talks in advance of the Obama visit. 

“The Syrian civil war has cost Hamas an important base and alliances with Iran and Hezbollah.” 

It seems Obama will help Abbas preserve that fig leaf. Kerry has been assigned to find a way to broker negotiations. Israel has since said it will resume the transfer of taxes that it collects “on behalf” of the PA after withholding them for several punishing months. There are reports that a few Palestinian prisoners and of a mini-freeze on settlements. 

Perhaps in expectation of just such a renewed “peace process” that the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week accepted a watered down resolution, shorn of all mechanisms for implementation, after the Council discussed the report of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, a move slammed by Palestinian human rights organisations. 

The Fact-Finding Mission’s report had actually called on Israel to cease all settlement activity “without preconditions” and “immediately initiate a process of withdrawal of all settlers” or face prosecution before the International Criminal Court. Any Palestinian leadership worth its salt would have used its newly acquired non-member observer status at the UN to apply for membership of the ICC and criminalise Israel’s settlement enterprise. 

Abbas and his colleagues have, however, placed all their hopes on Obama instead of on the Palestinian people, even though the US President has shown he is powerless to take on Israel and its lobby in Washington, DC. 

By contrast, the Palestinian people have shown they can accumulate the power to fulfill their rights even in the most dire circumstances, whether it is the moral power of prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, the steadfastness of villagers facing down the Israeli bulldozers clearing their land, or the Palestinian-led global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it upholds international law. 

No doubt Abbas will finally discover the magnitude of his mistake. Meanwhile, others will change the course of history. 

Nadia Hijab is Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.