Apparent leadership crises add to Mideast peace hurdles

With different regional priorities in mind, many Arab states are not in mood to challenge the Trump administration.
Sunday 11/03/2018
A political morass. Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN Riyad H. Mansour addresses a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, on January 25.                                                        (AFP)
A political morass. Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN Riyad H. Mansour addresses a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, on January 25. (AFP)

LONDON - Domestic problems faced by top Palestinian, Israeli and American officials are likely to add to the hurdles to restart the Middle East peace process.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been facing mounting criticism domestically over his security coordination with Israel and his intolerance to dissenting views in the West Bank. He continues to rate poorly in opinion polls.

A poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research indicated that 70% of Palestinians asked said they want Abbas to quit. “[Abbas] is not a charismatic leader. He’s seen as all talk and no action. His threats lack credibility and, as far as the public is concerned, he’s not up to the challenge,” Khalil Shikaki, the centre’s director, told the Financial Times.

Following the announcement by the United States in December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Abbas was placed in a more difficult position as the Palestinian Authority had relied on Washington’s support to counter critics.

Nearly 83 years old and in ill health, Abbas has not made any indication of stepping down but there were reports that the Palestinian leader planned to install Mahmoud al-Aloul as his vice-president. It is likely that rivalry within Fatah would flare up until a successor to Abbas takes charge.

In a bid to agree on a “new political programme” to counter the US move on Jerusalem, the Palestinian National Council, which serves as a parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is to gather on April 30.

Arab countries have officially backed Abbas’s rejection of the US decision on Jerusalem.

“The Arab League has already decided to stand against the negative consequences of the American dangerous and illegal decision of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognising the occupied city as a capital of Israel,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said following a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

Abbas, however, does not enjoy the wholehearted support of the region’s leaders, some of whom back his rivals in Fatah and Hamas. With different regional priorities in mind, many Arab countries are not in the mood to challenge the Trump administration, whose support they seek.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is possibly facing the most difficult period of his political career. He is struggling to fend off corruption investigations and may be forced to call early elections.

“If Netanyahu thinks the police, the prosecution and the attorney general are persecuting him, he should resign and do battle with them but as long as he remains the prime minister, his denunciations of them are illegitimate,” stated an editorial in Haaretz. “If no less a person than the prime minister thinks these institutions are acting unfairly, what will the ordinary citizen think? How will he trust them?”

Domestic pressures appear to have resulted in Netanyahu moving even further to the right to pander to his anti-Palestinian constituents and coalition partners. This will likely make any compromise deal — if there ever were one on the table — more difficult.

In the United States, the Trump administration is embroiled in a number of domestic crises, the most serious of which is alleged illegal dealings with Russia.

While US President Donald Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy to the city pleased some in his voter base, as well as the Israeli government, it was met with overwhelming international rejection.

The decision put many US officials in an embarrassing position: By flouting international law, the Trump administration found itself at odds with its allies in NATO and the European Union.

There are reports that France may mull pushing for an EU-led peace process initiative as the United States is no longer considered an “honest broker” by the Palestinians.

“Trump wanted to separate and isolate the issue of Jerusalem from the peace process and ended up isolating the United States,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

There is a possibility that the US president may walk away from seeking to secure “a deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump may instead assume that he might have more success in reaching a deal with North Korea or rival Gulf countries that he invited to the White House.

Additionally, the loss of top-secret clearance by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner may hinder Kushner’s role in handling the portfolio of the Middle East peace process.

“Former US and international officials say that even if Kushner stays, his job won’t be the same,” reported the Associated Press.

Reaching a US-brokered deal between the Israelis and Palestinians was never going to be easy but with the leadership challenges faced by the parties involved, any serious attempt to find a resolution is likely to be further delayed.