August 29, 2018 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Eran Lerman
Within a relatively short period of time, a full load of sobering, even shattering, bad news has rained upon Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s head. Some of it originated in Israel and Egypt, as plans were being drawn for a large-scale package of economic gestures and projects that would make the lives of people in Gaza somewhat better, while sidelining the PA and seeking ways to overcome Abbas’s obstinate veto.
Much of it came from Washington. First, President Trump reasserted that Jerusalem was now "off the table." Then, leaks from the Kushner team indicated that the U.S. intends to take off the putative "right of return" as well. No amount of presidential sugarcoating about the Palestinians now deserving "something good" from Israel could blunt the edge of these positions, which the Palestinians describe as an effort "to destroy the Palestinian national project."
Meanwhile, against the background of the Taylor Force Act, as well as the growing dissatisfaction with UNRWA’s role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, the Palestinians are now facing a major cut in funding, both directly (a reduction of some $200 million in U.S. development and humanitarian aid) and in terms of withdrawing U.S. support for the UN agency. The latter has been providing services (including a school network and various forms of social support) for 70 years to those defined as Palestinian refugees, who, unlike other groups of refugees, are allowed to count among their ever-growing number not only those personally displaced but also all their descendants.
Perhaps even more disheartening from a Palestinian point of view is the gnawing realization that the key players in the Arab world – above all, Saudi Arabia under the dynamic (or erratic: depends on whom you ask) leadership of Mohammad bin Salman – are willing to lend their active or tacit support to Trump’s "deal of the century" if and when it emerges.
This should come as no surprise. When Iranian-made Houthi missiles are falling on Riyadh, the Saudis, the U.A.E. and others who feel threatened by Tehran’s subversive ambitions are quite naturally focused upon an alliance with Washington against what they obviously see as their existential enemy. They are now lining up support for the anti-Iranian coalition of regional forces and have little time to spare for the troubles that many of them think the Palestinians have again and again brought upon themselves by their rejectionism.
The masterful history lesson offered on a Kuwaiti internet TV channel on July 11, and posted by MEMRI on August 1, by former Information Minister Sami Al-Nesf is a good indication of these new attitudes. Without hesitation, he points at the failure of Palestinian leaders to take up the offers made to them, from 1937 and 1947 to the present day, as the root of the Palestinian people’s misfortunes.
All this adds up to a brutal cold shower for a Palestinian leadership long used to being coddled by warm, though vague, assurances that the world, and certainly the Arab world, is committed to their "rights" as they see them. True, many in Israel, too, would be upset by the proposed compromise when it is finally put forward. This is apparently what Trump meant in his cryptic remarks in West Virginia. But the Palestinians would be required to adjust to the loss of many of their most cherished illusions. How will Abbas react?
His first reaction, already much in evidence, would be to fulminate against Trump, Israel, unnamed (Arab) others who fall into this Zionist trap (as he perceives it), and the cruelty of the world. The sympathetic European arena and the automatic pro-Palestinian votes at the UN General Assembly are the obvious places where he can bring his grievances to bear, while striking a heroic pose at home. Fatah rhetoric is becoming nasty. He will try, and may succeed, to use pan-Arab and pan-Islamic fora to curb the drift towards Trump’s positions. But at the end of the day, these are rhetorical devices. He needs leverage of a different sort.
This may be the reason for his increasingly obstructionist position as regards any attempts to alleviate living conditions in Gaza. In a sense, he is holding a large portion of his own people hostage to his agenda. In recent days he has been increasingly aggressive: "over his dead body" will there be a relief for Gaza, unless the full power of the PA is reinstated (which despite the "reconciliation" verbiage, Hamas will not really agree to accept). As the Egyptians push for a breakthrough – against the background of quite remarkable measures taken by Hamas to stop the fire kites and other violent actions – Abbas’s position could become the main point of contention.
Down the road, there is always the threat that he would "throw back the keys," break up the PA, and ask Israel to take over; or that he would suddenly depart as the result of more natural causes. Will this bring down the entire problematic edifice built since Oslo, and present Israel with a dramatic dilemma? Not necessarily. There are many in the PA who have a vested interest in the continued existence of a system that has given them power (and often wealth); and there are many thousands whose regular livelihood depends on the present institutional structure. At the end of the day, even if economically squeezed, the PA is still preferable to a collapse into chaos. The lessons of turmoil in neighboring Arab countries add urgency to this imperative. Stability matters, even when the going gets rough.
What Israel, U.S. Can Do
Thus, it is still possible to bring about over time a positive outcome of the present "cold shower." To facilitate an adjustment to these new realities and rules of the road, it is better for both Israel and the U.S. to combine three elements:
1) Going over Abbas’s head when offering new options for Gaza. His present posture must be shown to be of little use to him as a tool of blackmail.
2) Building leverage over the next generation of Palestinian leaders by bringing them under the wings of the relevant players in the Arab world, and specifically Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
3) Taking measured steps to phase out UNRWA and the Palestinians’ destructive habit of dependence upon foreign handouts. While perfectly legitimate, these cuts cannot be sudden and overwhelming. A new model of fiscally responsible and politically sensible leadership can only be built over time.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.