What is behind Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic offensive?
The Palestinian president hopes to restore the Palestinian Authority’s international standing. But will it work?
Over the past two months, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been actively trying to pull the Palestinian Authority (PA) out of its political isolation. After the results of the US elections became clear in November, hope seems to have come back to Ramallah that the punitive campaign the Trump administration waged against it is now over.
With none of the PA’s harsh rhetoric or protest action resulting in any change in the positions of the Arab countries normalising relations with Israel, Abbas has been forced to change tactics. Hoping to re-engage Washington, he has now set off to mend relations with Arab nations and try to gain some support for his overture to the Biden administration. He is also aiming to regain financial support for the cash-strapped PA. But will his gamble pay off?
On November 17, just days after Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections was confirmed, the PA made the sudden announcement that it was restoring suspended relations with Israel and resuming security coordination. It also started accepting again transfers of tax revenue which the Israeli government collects on its behalf. All this was a clear gesture to Washington aimed at winning the goodwill of the next administration.
Two days later, local and international media reported the PA had also returned its ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after they were recalled over the summer months to protest normalisation with Israel. Meanwhile, no punitive measures were undertaken against Sudan, which announced the normalisation of ties with Israel in October. In December, the Morocco-Israeli normalisation deal also evoked almost no reaction from the PA.
There were some speculations that the Palestinian ambassadors were sent back to Manama and Abu Dhabi because of fears the Gulf countries may expel thousands of Palestinian expatriate workers in retaliation, which would have been another devastating blow to the already struggling Palestinian people.
But perhaps the real reason behind the move is that the PA has come to the painful realisation that it has lost the “veto power” on Arab normalisation with Israel and Arab countries no longer care about rhetorical protests from Ramallah. It is clear the process will continue, whether the Palestinians like it or not. And if the PA were to withdraw its ambassadors from every Arab state that undertakes normalisation, it would risk its isolation only deepening further.
Furthermore, Ramallah has been suffering from a financial siege, imposed on it after it rejected the “deal of the century” put forward by the Trump administration in early 2020. According to Palestinian officials, Arab countries, with the exception of Algeria, stopped sending financial support to the PA in March under the pressure of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. This along with the cessation of tax money transfers from Israel have put the PA in a very difficult financial situation.
This financial siege has raised tensions within the occupied Palestinian territories and fears that external players may use this vulnerability to stage a “coup” against the PA. Abbas has been particularly worried about his nemesis Muhammad Dahlan, former Fatah leader in Gaza and current UAE “envoy” in the Palestinian territories, who – as Arab and Israeli media have repeatedly reported – is allegedly being prepared to take over the Palestinian presidency.
A diplomatic offensive
After the quiet moves of restoring normal relations with Israel and the Gulf states, Abbas went on a full diplomatic offensive in late November.
On November 29, he travelled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and met with King Abdullah II. On November 30, he flew to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The final leg of the tour was the Qatari capital, Doha, where Abbas met with Prince Tamim bin Hamad on December 14.
Abbas’s regional tour was accompanied by other diplomatic communications. On November 29, the Jordanian king called the Egyptian president. Then on December 3, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, and his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, held a meeting at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. On December 4, el-Sisi had phone conversations with Ashkenazi and Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Maliki and a few days later extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Cairo.
It is clear el-Sisi is interested in eventually hosting a joint summit between Abbas and Netanyahu to restore Egypt’s role in Palestinian-Israeli affairs recently diminished by the more assertive UAE and Saudi Arabia. These two powerful Gulf states have sought to crowd out other Arab actors due to their close relations with Israel and their wish to counter the increasing Turkish and Qatari influence in Palestine.
At the same time, it seems Abbas’s tour is aimed at bridging differences with the countries that have breached the Arab consensus on Palestine in order to reach a new unified Arab position on the Palestinian question. The Palestinian president hopes to rally support for his leadership and for a new peace initiative to be presented to the Biden administration as an alternative to Trump’s deal of the century.
He has called on the UN to convene a new peace conference on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with all major stake-holders and it seems this move has already gained the support of Jordan and Egypt.
Although the PA seems intent on carrying through with this plan for a new set of peace negotiations with Israel, there is not much cause for optimism that it will be a success. The PA still controls only the West Bank, and it cannot claim to represent all Palestinians while divisions with Hamas continue. At the moment there are no positive prospects for reconciliation.
Another issue that may frustrate the PA’s efforts is the chaotic political situation in Israel, which in the coming months will have its fourth election in two years. This means a new Israeli government will not be ready for negotiations at least until the second half of this year – if it is actually willing to negotiate.
Recent polls show the parties that are likely to make gains in the vote are even more extreme than the current governing coalition. That means Netanyahu’s successor may not be willing at all to give concessions to the Palestinians on illegal Israeli settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories, while an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank and recognition of a Palestinian state will be completely out of the question.
Then there is also the new US administration led by Biden. It is true he appears to be more understanding of Palestinian demands and less biased towards Israel, compared with Trump, but the US presidential agenda is crowded with domestic and foreign policy issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the deepening economic crisis, the tensions with Iran, and the difficult relationship with China. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is quite low on the list of its priorities, which means Biden is unlikely to expend much energy on the issue and pursue a new peace process.
In this sense, the PA’s initiative appears to be no more than an attempt to stay politically relevant after the Trump administration’s hostile policies and Arab normalisation deals with Israel took a major toll on its political capital. But trying to restore the old status quo which brought about only disaster for the Palestinians may not be the best survival strategy for the Palestinian leadership.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.