Gideon Gross, JHU:
With leaders from around the world coming to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, few leaders attracted more headlines than the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas stated in his speech to the General Assembly, “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel and Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power.” While Abbas’ comments may come as a surprise, given that no options can realistically solve the conflict besides negotiation with Israel that includes US mediation, his comments originated more from political ambition than a desire to reach a conclusion to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
From a domestic standpoint, Abbas has incited similar comments to shore up his Fatah base in the West Bank. Since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, there has been a decentralization of power in the Palestinian movement. Abbas was seen as the inevitable successor by Arafat’s Fatah party and assumed the position of President in 2005. Despite his rapid succession to power after the death of Arafat, since 2006, the Palestinian people have been split in the West Bank and Gaza Strip both geographically and politically. The Islamist party Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since winning elections in 2006, and it remains both a vocal and violent opponent to Mr. Abbas’s attempts to consolidate power in the region. Hamas espouses a right wing Islamist doctrine, and Mr. Abbas has made right wing statements with little action in the past to ensure that his Fatah party would not lose power to Hamas. Abbas has gone so far as to attempt to make unity governments with Hamas with the result being a disintegration of the alliance only several months after they’ve been formed. The only major change that has occurred for the Palestinian people under his rule has been an upgrade from temporary to permanent observer status at the United Nations (he has tried to achieve statehood status but this requires a UN security council resolution with the US assuring Abbas a veto if he tries to circumvent the negotiating process with Israel)
In addition to the domestic issues facing Mr. Abbas, the Israeli Palestinian conflict has lost its immediate sense of urgency to solve in the international community. Problems such as the rise of ISIS, Russia’s incursions into Syria and the Iran Nuclear deal have been focal points of the international realm with the Arab-Israeli conflict waning in importance. This isn’t entirely Abbas’s fault, given that a relative stagnation of a desire to achieve a solution on the Israeli side of the conflict has also occurred. The government of Israel has remained preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear programs and has focused its military initiatives to combat Hamas rocket attacks and illegal smuggling, with attaining a negotiated peace deal of distance importance to these two issues. Even with the US, the conflict has taken a back seat since the 2014 negotiations mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry to issues ranging from the Ukraine Crisis to the ongoing Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. The inherent issue with this is that international support is Abbas’s most powerful political tool against Israel, and without it, he has little leverage to negotiate with. Major peace deals in the Arab-Israeli conflict such as 1978 Camp David and Oslo accords came from a simultaneous occurrence of Israeli agency with International mediation, and without either Abbas has little ability to negotiate a solution.
Finally, Abbas’s comments most likely will carry little weight with the Palestinian Authorities actual policy. While it sounds politically appealing to rile up your base, Israel provides several necessary logistical functions to the PA such as tax collecting duty and has security controls as negotiated with the PA in Oslo. The important issue that Mr. Abbas is facing is not if he should adhere to previous negotiated agreements with Israel, but whether he can attain a peace agreement in the future.