The Odds Are Stacked Against Mahmoud Abbas

(Photo: Palestine Solidarity Project/Flickr)

Shortly before Mahmoud Abbas took to the UN podium on September 30 — in his first address to the General Assembly as the representative of the “non-member state” of Palestine — his office hinted that the Palestinian Authority leader would drop a “bombshell.”

When the speech arrived, Abbas touched on a litany of issues the Palestinian people face as a result of the ongoing Israeli occupation of their lands, including the unjustified killing of innocent civilians, the displacement of Palestinian families from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the latest Israeli incursions on the Al-Aqsa mosque.

These abuses, Abbas insisted, demonstrated Israel’s lack of commitment to the 1993 Oslo Accords — an ongoing effort to create a peace treaty between Palestine and Israel. The accords are the heart of the so-called “peace process.”

According to the Oslo framework, Palestinians — under the Palestinian Authority, which was created by the agreement and is now led by Abbas — administer parts of the Occupied Territories on Israel’s behalf while preventing militants from attacking Israel. In return, Israel is supposed to release the territories into an independent Palestinian state negotiated by the parties.

Yet Oslo has been in complete disarray almost since the beginning.

It’s been hobbled by the ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes, the continued growth of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and a dizzying network of Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank that make it impossible for Palestinians to travel freely for work, healthcare, or normal social life. Successive Israeli governments have shown little to no interest in making serious concessions for peace, while the Palestinian political leadership has been badly undermined by its security cooperation with Israel.

None of this, of course, is news. If anything, knife attacks, settler violence, clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces, and other signs of the decaying peace process have only increased in the month since Abbas’ speech.

Then came Abbas’ “bombshell”: If Israel won’t do its part to keep up the Oslo framework, he said, then the Palestinian Authority “cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements” either. Arguing that the Authority couldn’t run the peace process by itself, Abbas added that “Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power.”

This doesn’t mean he pulled out of Oslo, as some outlets reported at the time. Truly cancelling the agreement would mean dismantling the Palestinian Authority — Abbas’ own seat of authority — and refusing to govern Palestinian territories for Israel. That would officially revert their governance to Israel itself (which Israel, as the occupying power, is technically responsible for under international law).

Failing that, Abbas’ threat is empty — if anything, it’s a last-ditch effort to revive Oslo, not transform it. That’s bound to fail, for at least four reasons.

First, the Oslo Accords can’t be enacted amid constant violence — either the slow-motion variety of family displacement and settlement construction or the pitched street battles currently plaguing East Jerusalem.

Second, any peace initiative is dependent on the United States, which has appointed itself the key mediator of the conflict. While Washington has expressed support for a Palestinian state, it’s foremost a key ally of Israel, supporting the country financially, militarily, and diplomatically — even when Israeli actions contradict the stated U.S. interest in a two-state solution.

Third, Abbas lacks popular support from Palestinians and is notorious for his inability to act on his promises. Despite high-profile actions at the UN and elsewhere, Abbas — whose official term expired years ago — has little to show for his efforts when it comes to improving the condition of Palestinians at home.

And finally, beyond standing before world leaders and reminding them of the Palestinian struggle, Abbas doesn’t seem to have any real solutions to his country’s occupation. There’s no strategy for how these issues can be resolved or what other leaders can do to contribute.

So what can Abbas do?

For starters, he could act on his threat to end the Palestinian Authority’s cooperation with Israel until the occupying power fulfills its own responsibilities. This could increase his support among Palestinians, and it would put the onus on Israel to restart the process. But any move towards abolishing the Authority (which Abbas is unlikely to do in any case) runs the risk of damaging Abbas’ support among international governments. And in any case the Netanyahu government in Israel is unlikely to respond productively.

On the other hand, Abbas could continue to improve his relationships with other world leaders in hopes of pressuring the United States into initiating a more concrete and effective peace strategy — a strategy that ends violence, checkpoints, and mass incarceration of Palestinians. But though the Obama administration seems to have soured on Netanyahu himself, Washington is unlikely to play this role anytime soon.

A third option would be to call for an international peacekeeping force to administer the territories with the goal of shepherding the creation of a Palestinian state, though Israel is unlikely to allow this without a fight. Although the United States may be reluctant to support such a motion, the European Union could encourage it. The EU has played a significant role in Palestine’s economic and social development — something that should be funded by the occupying force but isn’t.

The odds don’t favor Abbas in any of these scenarios. But that’s how the odds are stacked when one country’s the occupier and the other’s occupied.

Nazish Kolsy is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.