Mahmoud Abbas, The Trump Administration, And The Politics Of Peace

Donald Trump met Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem today, a twofer for a President intent, as the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, put it last week, on visiting “homelands and holy sites” and expressing “his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” Reading prepared remarks, in a Presidential palace outfitted with the trappings of sovereignty, Trump told reporters that he’d work with Abbas on “unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy.” Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister and a settlement advocate, probably spoke for most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last November, when he declared that, with Trump’s election, “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” Today, in Bethlehem, it was prolonged.

Much has been written about the Trump Administration’s growing desire to conceive that state from the region in, rather than from the conflict out. Yesterday, in Riyadh, Trump reportedly agreed with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to hold a peace summit, with Netanyahu, Abbas, and Jordanian and possibly even Saudi representatives in attendance. There is also much discussion about the vulnerability of Netanyahu’s government, due to the ongoing criminal investigations (he is accused of, among other things, enabling close associates to profit from Israel’s procurement of naval vessels) but also to the threat posed by coalition partners like Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which would rather topple the government than accept concessions—particularly a prospective Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem—under U.S. pressure. But Palestinians have a politics, too, which usually gets only cursory attention. Abbas has an ongoing rivalry with Hamas, but other challenges besides; if the Trump Administration procrastinates, or expects significant new concessions from him, Abbas’s staying power is similarly uncertain.

Abbas is eighty-two, with a smoking habit, and he has no designated successor. He is the head of the Fatah movement and was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. (As a Palestinian friend told me, Abbas is in his twelfth year of a four-year term.) He won with more than sixty per cent of the vote. Yet polls now show that more than sixty per cent of Palestinians want him gone. His achievements—two rounds of peace negotiations with Israel, first with Ehud Olmert, in 2008, then with Netanyahu, in 2014; securing non-member observer-state status for Palestine at the United Nations, and Palestinian standing with the International Criminal Court—are shadowed by suspicions that P.A. leaders engage, if only by necessity, in a form of collaboration that occasions financial corruption and undermines Palestinian honor.

“Despite some shrewd diplomatic moves, the reality on the ground is bitter, muddled,” Sam Bahour, a prominent business consultant in Ramallah, told me. Ordinary Palestinians resent what they see as a “defunct political system, no parliamentary elections since January, 2006, and police brutality, especially against Hamas supporters.” Some P.A. officials have managed the flow of aid to monopolistic enterprises that provide perks and inflated salaries to friends and family—reportedly including Abbas’s son. According to the Times of London, European Union auditors can’t account for nearly two billion pounds in aid distributed between 2008 and 2012. But the World Bank reports that about thirty per cent of Palestinians are categorized as unemployed, and youth unemployment in Gaza is nearly sixty per cent. Abbas has also appeared powerless to prevent new Israeli settlements, military aggression, and the siege on Gaza.

None of this means that Hamas is viewed as the necessary alternative. According to Khalil Shikaki, the director of Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, leads Abbas in Presidential polls forty-nine per cent to forty-four. This seems more a barometer of frustration, though, than an endorsement of Hamas ideology. The Islamist group rarely polls above thirty per cent in parliamentary elections, while Fatah polls above forty. Hamas violently expelled the Fatah leadership of the P.A. from Gaza, in 2007; it has since refused to renounce terrorist acts against Israel, or to recognize Israel’s legitimacy—even in the group’s recently revised charter, which accepts a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Among the public, Hamas’s tough talk and missile attacks excite general pride but also a fear of fatal recklessness, particularly given the horrors in Syria. “For older Palestinians, Damascus feels next door,” the veteran West Bank journalist Danny Rubinstein told me. “They focus on normal life. They’ll overlook a lot—corruption, even collaboration—to keep things from descending into chaos. But what do young people overlook?”

Read on at The New Yorker