Are Americans looking for an alternative to Abbas?

If Abbas does not step aside of his own accord, the United States may give him a push by pressuring the Palestinian Authority politically and financially.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Squeezed out. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reads a file during the Arab summit in Mecca, May 31.   (Reuters)
Squeezed out. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reads a file during the Arab summit in Mecca, May 31. (Reuters)

LONDON - The Trump administration’s peace plan for the Middle East has been met with strong objections from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who accused the United States of being biased in favour of Israel.

Palestinian and US officials fell out after Washington officially recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy to the city. The row continued with the United States cutting aid to both the Palestinians and the UN agency that caters to Palestinian refugees. The United States was the single largest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and its aid is much needed.

The United States also drew Palestinian ire when Washington organised an economic workshop in the Bahrain. The Palestinian Authority has been struggling to get by after the Trump administration’s aid cut but it does not expect to receive any economic benefits from the United States unless it comes at a heavy political cost.

Observers said tensions between Abbas and the United States show no signs of abating.

“The Bahrain workshop is a clear indicator of the tensions. The Palestinians believe the workshop is a precursor to relinquishing their national aspirations,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  “This is what they believe is coming. They will not be selling their rights away.”

Greg Shapland, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said: “He (Abbas) won’t play ball. This is one of the main grievances the United States has with the Palestinian leader, he will not follow their script.

“Given these challenges the Palestinians have continued their positions of principle to set out their vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinians but it hasn’t followed the American plan; therefore, the US is distinctly upset.”

Abbas does not see US President Donald Trump as an honest broker in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Observers say the Palestinian leader is unlikely to take part in peace talks sponsored by the Trump administration. Abbas’s best bet, they argue, would be to wait for a new president to come to office if Trump doesn’t win a second term.

The Palestinians are not the only ones who are waiting for a change in leadership.  The Americans are reportedly waiting for Abbas, 83 and ill, to step down so that he would, perhaps, be replaced by a more cooperative candidate from their perspective.

If Abbas does not step aside of his own accord, the United States may give him a push by pressuring the Palestinian Authority politically and financially. “It’s clear the race to replace Abbas is on. The US is piling on the pressure (on Palestinians),” a member of the Palestinian Authority said on condition of anonymity. “There has been a big conspiracy against him.”

There has been no shortage of speculation about who Abbas’s successor might be but — short of an official confirmation — it remains guesswork.

“Palestinian succession is the biggest black box in the Middle East,” Daniel Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, said.

Among the names mentioned in Palestinian circles as a successor to Abbas is Nasser al-Kidwa, nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former foreign minister. Kidwa has significant public support and is not afraid of making tough decisions. Kidwa is reportedly viewed more favourably than Abbas by the United States, Israel and a number of Arab countries.

It is unclear whether any Palestinian leader can make the concessions that US and Israeli officials desire.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh is another possible successor to Abbas. Shtayyeh took part in the 2013 peace talks with Israelis, initiated by then US Secretary of State John Kerry.

It is not clear if Shtayyeh, who is known for his loyalty to Abbas, would adopt a drastically different policy should he become president. He recently wrote an opinion piece published by the Washington Post describing the Bahrain workshop as “A Trump-Netanyahu blueprint for permanent apartheid, not peace.”

Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates, is an opponent of Abbas who has followers in the West Bank and Gaza. Dahlan, too, has dismissed the effectiveness of the US push for its plan. “They (US administration officials) have nothing new to offer,” Dahlan said.

In mid-March, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah published a survey indicating that 64% of Palestinians questioned said they oppose the Palestinian Authority resuming contact with the US administration, while 23% said they support resuming it.

Palestinian General Intelligence Chief Majed Faraj is a possible candidate for the post of Palestinian presidency. Faraj is seen positively by the United States for ensuring Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation but he is also quoted to have said, in a reference to the Bahrain conference, that the “conspiracy of substituting the political solution to the Palestinian cause with an economic solution will never succeed.”

US officials are likely to refrain from naming their preferred candidate so as not to hinder his chances. Abbas is likely to be reluctant to name a US-favoured candidate as his vice-president of the Palestinian Authority.

In all cases, a change in the Palestinian leadership does not come without risks, for both Israel and the United States. When he first became president, Abbas was viewed more favourably by Tel Aviv and Washington than his predecessor, Arafat.