Trump’s Jerusalem move puts Abbas in tough spot

Many question Abbas’s credibility at a time when there is little prospect to restart peace talks.
December 24, 2017
Critical juncture. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh, on December 20. (Al-Ekhbariya)
Critical juncture. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh, on December 20. (Al-Ekhbariya)

London- Despite a symbolic UN Gen­eral Assembly vote declar­ing US President Donald Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel “null and void,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Ab­bas remains in a tough spot. Many question his credibility at a time when there is little prospect to restart peace talks and the Palestinian leader seems to have few alternatives.

The General Assembly voted 128-9 in passing a non-binding resolution rejecting Trump’s decree, despite the American president’s threat that Washington could cut off aid to coun­tries that voted for the censure.

The General Assembly vote came after the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and relocate its embassy there.

It was that move that ensured that the United States, viewed as siding with Israel, is no longer seen as a vi­able mediator for peace by the Pales­tinians.

The United States is “no longer an honest mediator in the peace pro­cess,” Abbas told a press conference in Paris, on December 22.

“We will not accept any plan from the United States of America because of its bias and violation of the inter­national law,” he added.

Abbas had derived political legiti­macy from the peace process, po­sitioning himself as the only leader capable of delivering statehood. However, more than two decades since the Oslo process was launched, he does not have much to show.

The crisis over Jerusalem may push Abbas, the most steadfast Palestin­ian champion of seeking statehood through negotiations, to a point he has avoided for so long — acknowl­edgement that the peace process isn’t working.

Those close to Abbas reportedly agreed it was time to look for alterna­tives.

Any talks with US officials are “su­perfluous and irrelevant,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Libera­tion Organisation official told the As­sociated Press. “The peace process is finished.”

Abbas warned in the past that fail­ure to achieve a two-state solution could prompt Palestinians to pursue a single state for two peoples, a pros­pect most Israelis reject. The Pales­tinians could also press prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to charge Israeli leaders with war crimes, including over settlement building, observers said. Abbas has refrained from such a step, under apparent US pressure, and for fear of provoking an Israeli backlash.

Abbas has explicitly stated that he will seek to secure full state mem­bership for the Palestinians at the United Nations but that tactic faces major hurdles without US consent. With its veto at the Security Council and threats to cut off aid to anyone who voted for the resolution at the general assembly, Washington has demonstrated that it is prepared to play diplomatic hardball.

“We will go once again and many times to get full membership. We are a state and an authority and we have borders and we have the right to get the world’s recognition of us,” Abbas was quoted as saying by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Locally, where the public was en­raged by Trump’s announcement, Abbas is likely to fear being upstaged by Hamas, which called for another Palestinian uprising. Regionally, Ab­bas may fear being overshadowed by Iran or Turkey even if he knows their pro-Palestinian posturing is essen­tially self-serving.

Abbas had met with leaders in Saudi Arabia to obtain assurances of support and assistance with Wash­ington. Riyadh reiterated its backing for the right of Palestinians to an in­dependent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A Palestinian opinion poll indi­cated overwhelming opposition to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Such sentiments ap­pear to be shared across the Arab and Muslim worlds, where many took to the streets to protest Trump’s deci­sion, which was rejected by much of the international community.

Even if there is no way forward in the peace process for Abbas with the United States as a mediator, he may look to the United Nations for a solu­tion. However, Abbas is aware that UN expressions of support have de­clarative value only.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gu­terres said the Jerusalem issue must be resolved through direct nego­tiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and warned that “uni­lateral measures” could jeopardise prospects for peace.

The Palestinians are increasingly looking to Europe for help, encour­aged by harsh criticism of Trump’s Jerusalem policy by European lead­ers. European countries had been relegated by Washington to the role of paymaster, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to support the Palestinian self-rule government and help manage the long-running conflict.

European countries often take a more critical view of Israeli poli­cies, especially on settlements, than the United States but have not chal­lenged Washington’s monopoly as mediator.

Despite improving Russian-Israeli ties over Syria, it is unlikely Tel Aviv would accept Moscow as a replace­ment for Washington as a mediator with the Palestinians because Israel cannot rely on Russian backing being as reliable as the strong support from the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised the Trump administration on the Jerusalem issue, saying the move “doesn’t help the Mideast set­tlement and, just the opposite, desta­bilises the already difficult situation in the region.”

Abbas faces two problems: By shunning the United States, he would find himself in uncharted ter­ritory and would fail to find an alter­native mediator that Israel is willing to accept. Worse, he may not find an alternative in which he can play a credible role.