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For Abbas, bilateral negotiations are still the only game in town

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This week a US delegation is visiting the Middle East to try and build regional support for their plan to restart talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Some commentators have described the task of US President Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” as mission impossible, with the leaders of Israel, the US and the Palestinian Authority (PA) all facing domestic difficulties that further reduce their ability to compromise and to focus on the issue at hand. Whilst the outcome of this week’s trip is unclear, one thing appears certain: the Palestinians are heavily pessimistic it will lead to anything substantial.

In discussions with a Meretz party delegation last weekend, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s spoke of his bewilderment of what the US is actually trying to achieve, calling the Trump administration chaotic. Juxtaposing these comments to Abbas’s positivity in May when he spoke of the President’s “determination” and “desire” to see a solution to the conflict, and his belief “that we can be partners, true partners, to bring about a historic peace treaty” is noteworthy. In the space of three months, Abbas has undergone a 180 degree turnaround.

This pessimism had already been expressed by Abbas’s top diplomats. Two weeks ago, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted by several Palestinian outlets describing current US efforts as “redundant” because the Palestinians “have lost confidence in the Americans as objective mediators,” and instead was pushing the idea of resuming the internationalisation strategy (“Palestine 194”). This was echoed a few days later by PLO representative to Washington Husam Zomlot who warned that if the US fails to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Palestinians will revert to soliciting recognition from international agencies and institutions.

If the upcoming talks fail to convince the Palestinians that the Trump team are a credible mediator, an important question for Abbas, Erekat, Zomlot and co will be: to what extent will returning to “Palestine 194” change realities for Palestinians on the ground? And at what cost to the peace process and its relations with the US, and Israel?

Palestine 194 reached its apex on 29 November 2012 when the UN General Assembly upgraded the PA’s status to that of a non-member observer state. However, winning that vote in 2012, and joining a host of international organisations in 2014 and the International Criminal Court in 2015, have done little to change the daily reality for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

It is highly unlikely that the Trump administration would take kindly to the Palestinians renewing their Palestine 194 strategy. Joining additional international bodies will likely result in immediate sanctions for the PA (for example after Abbas joined UNESCO, Israel suspended financial transfers to the PA and the US suspended its funding to the UN body). Even Jordan’s King Abdullah II hinted to Abbas earlier this month not to upset Trump’s peace efforts, which Abdullah said remain vital to “the future of the Palestinian issue”. Moreover, trying to formally get recognition of the State of Palestine from the UN via the Security Council would almost certainly end in a US veto, burning much needed  political goodwill that Abbas still has with the administration, especially if they are perceived as being the party that prevented further talks from materialising.

Secondly, the internationalisation strategy has been more effective as a threat to get back to negotiations or, from the Palestinian perspective, as a way to strengthen their hand in negotiations. But, with the composition of the current government in Israel and the personalities within the Trump administration, threats to internationalise are unlikely to strengthen the chances of a renewal of bilateral negotiations.

Despite Abbas’s frustrations with the US and the lack of progress in bilateral negotiations, his strategic options are limited. Reconciliation with Hamas is increasingly unlikely; and the internationalisation strategy – despite its seeming attractiveness – has limited ability to advance the Palestinians down the road to a sovereign state. A return to the “Palestine 194” strategy may make Abbas and his aides feel better, but might destroy its relations with the Trump administration and provide Netanyahu with an excuse to once again paint the Palestinians as rejectionists. Despite Abbas’s frustrations, it looks like bilateral negotiations are the only game in town.

Samuel Nurding is a research analyst at BICOM and assistant editor of Fathom.