Why you should care
Because the Middle East needs stable leadership from all sides.
When Jihad Manasri, then a stone-throwing youth, was sent to an Israeli jail in 2008, Palestinians were about to welcome a friendly U.S. president in Barack Obama, and their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, could command a degree of domestic and international respect.
Now released from Hadarim prison and a student leader in the increasingly restive West Bank, Manasri has lost the hope he had a decade ago, in the face of what he sees as U.S. and Israeli aggression enabled by a bigger failure closer to home.
“The Palestinian leadership … have compromised over everything,” he says, sitting in a café in Ramallah, de facto capital of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. “People can’t wait forever. We don’t want our leadership coming back every time empty-handed.”
Abbas is not a charismatic leader, he’s seen as all talk and no action.
Khalil Shikaki, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
His words underline the challenges facing Abbas, a chain-smoking 82-year-old, as the Palestinians reel from an abrupt change in policy under Donald Trump. The U.S. president has voiced full-throated support for Israel as Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, works on a much-debated peace deal that many believe will be heavily slanted in Israel’s favor.
Just as the Palestinians face perhaps the biggest threat to their national project, Abbas and his organization are unpopular and, in the words of senior official Mohammed Shtayieh, “powerless, an authority without authority.” In the past few months, Abbas has watched as Trump has appointed a settlement-supporting ambassador to Israel, fast-tracked the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and slashed aid to Palestinian refugees. Traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have prioritized tackling Iran over supporting the Palestinian cause, further isolating the Palestinian Authority’s aging leader.
Support for Abbas, who has rebuffed demands to call long-overdue elections since his initial term ended in 2009, has fallen to a record low. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research has found that 70 percent of Palestinians want him to quit, and in the unlikely event that elections were called he would lose his presidency to a rival from Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
“[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’s concerned, he’s not up to the challenge,” says Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director. “But the public has no alternative.”
Abbas’ refusal to hold elections while cooperating with Israel to prop up the Palestinian Authority has alienated the West Bank and the influential youth who make up much of the territory’s population. This includes the group of teenagers who had gathered recently to throw stones at Israeli soldiers near a checkpoint. “Forget Abu Mazen,” says a 17-year-old, using Abbas’ Arabic nickname. “I know only one word: freedom. Does he know that word, or has he forgotten it?”
Officials, both Israeli and Palestinian, warn that this anger could result in more serious violence that neither Abbas, who was educated in Moscow and Damascus and has consistently disavowed violence, nor the Israeli government will be easily able to tame. Abbas’ allies do not deny the problems. “I don’t dispute the fact that our youth are very frustrated,” says Shtayieh, citing unemployment, Israeli policies and the stalled peace process as key reasons. “People have been promised so much, and so little has been achieved.”
Nasser Qudwa, a former minister, says: “Simply put, we have failed … to achieve peace [and an] independent economy” for Palestinians. Of Abbas, a key figure in the 1993 Oslo Accord that established the Palestinian Authority, he adds: “The new generation does not see the hero.”
This week, as rumors of his ill health swirled around Ramallah, Palestinian media reported that Abbas had agreed to appoint Mahmoud al-Aloul, a longtime deputy, as his interim successor. Supporters point out that Abbas, a man who says he has waited his entire life to say yes to an honorable peace deal, has done what he can to block the Trump plan. He has sought to prevent a deal from being unveiled, rejected mediation and shut out U.S. envoys, while appealing to the EU and the U.N. to create a different model. So far his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
What can the Americans do? Believe me, without a Palestinian signature, no plan can work.
Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian politician
“If justice for our people cannot be achieved here, where else can we go?” he pleaded in February during a rare address to the U.N. Security Council. “I beg of you, help us.”
An unlikely savior for Abbas could be the U.S. political dysfunction that has led to Kushner being stripped of some security clearances. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hard-line prime minister, could also be forced to resign under the weight of overlapping corruption investigations, which he denies. And despite their outward derision, Israel would also prefer Abbas to a power vacuum.
Abbas also has an ace in the pack, according to rival and critic Mustafa Barghouti, that could ensure the veteran negotiator defies his doubters and remains in the job a while longer. When confronted with a bad deal, he can simply walk away. “What can the Americans do? Believe me, without a Palestinian signature, no plan can work,” he says. “And no Arab leader or world leader can replace the Palestinian signature.”
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