Trump can’t pressure Abbas when Palestinians want Barghouti

For now, the unpopular Palestinian president seems to have little choice but listen to the advice of his jailed party comrade.
Sunday 08/07/2018
A Palestinian protester holds a slingshot as he sits near a banner with a picture of jailed leader Marwan Barghouti in Ramallah. (AP)
Uncompromising stance. A Palestinian protester holds a slingshot as he sits near a banner with a picture of jailed leader Marwan Barghouti in Ramallah. (AP)

Palestinians have indicated that they would vote for a leader who opposes the “deal of the century” proposed by US President Donald Trump. No, that was not a reference to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas but rather jailed uprising icon Marwan Barghouti.

A poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research reported that 30% of 2,150 adults interviewed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip said they would elect Barghouti as Abbas’s successor. Both Barghouti and Abbas are members of Fatah.

The survey indicated that Barghouti was the most popular leader in the occupied Palestinian territories, followed by Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the rival Hamas faction, with 23% support.

Of course, this isn’t likely to affect the shape of the Palestinian government or alter its factional reality. Israel is not planning to release Barghouti from prison, where he is serving five life sentences for his role in the Palestinian uprising, and the chances of Abbas calling for presidential elections are dim.

However, it does shed light on the spot that the Trump administration has placed Abbas in after Washington announced it would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Abbas, seen as too accommodating to the United States and Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights, was already unpopular among other Palestinians. With his election mandate long expired, Abbas was selling the vision of an independent Palestinian state that would come about thanks to US mediation with Israel.

Prior to the collapse of the Middle East peace talks in 2014, Abbas was banking on his negotiations with the Israelis to give him legitimacy. However, Israel’s refusal to give Palestinians significant rights and Trump’s abandonment of even the appearance of an “honest broker” has deprived Abbas of his last fig leaf in front of his people.

Unfortunately for Abbas, it was too late to play the patriot card. His recent outbursts against US officials have failed to convince Palestinians. The latest poll indicated 61% of respondents said they wanted Abbas to resign.

Despite his dependence on heavy-handed security forces, there are red lines that his people will not tolerate being crossed when it comes to historical Palestinian rights. Ironically, Abbas is still Trump’s and Israel’s best bet; breaking him would backfire on them.

Trump should be aware of the power of public opinion in the region as he seeks to please his voter base at home. For his core supporters, Trump has flouted international and diplomatic norms, offended his NATO allies, European partners and his neighbours — including arguably the world’s friendliest country, Canada.

US policies towards the occupied Palestinian territories under Trump have not only parted ways with international law and the European Union, they have taken a turn from Washington’s own traditional diplomatic conduct.

Seven former US ambassadors to the United Nations called on the Trump administration to restore funding to UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), which is responsible for helping Palestinian refugees worldwide, after Washington announced it would cut payments due to its spat with Abbas.

“This financial gap puts into question the ability of UNRWA to continue to deliver education and health-care services to millions of people and has national security ramifications for our closest allies, including Israel and Jordan,” the former ambassadors, both Republican and Democrat, said in a public letter.

The Trump administration’s proposed peace plan, once it’s unveiled, is unlikely to be accepted by anyone in the region — at least publicly — other than the Israeli government. Even Israeli public opinion is sceptical about the potential for success of the plan.

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that nearly three-quarters of 600 Jewish and Arab respondents said Trump’s plan has a low chance of success.

The Palestinians are not holding their breath either. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict “won’t be

solved by the tools of real estate men,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

For now, the unpopular Palestinian president seems to have little choice but listen to the advice of his jailed party comrade.

“Trump will be gone in a year or five years but Jerusalem, Palestine and its people will remain,” Barghouti told supporters in a leaked letter last April. He urged Abbas to reject Trump’s “conspiracy of the century.”

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