BICOM Analysis: What does Abbas’s Oslo threat mean?

Key Points

  • Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas declared in a speech to the UN that the Palestinians “cannot continue to be bound” by its agreements with Israel.
  • However, Abbas issued no specific deadline or measures, and it remains to be seen when and if the PA will jeopardise the economic and security cooperation with Israel on which it depends.
  • Abbas’s first priority is to sure up waning domestic legitimacy. He has for several years branded bilateral negotiations a failure and sought to unilaterally secure recognition of the State of Palestine and build international pressure on Israel.
  • Netanyahu will respond to Abbas’s accusations in a speech to the UN on Thursday, whilst likely repeating his call for renewed talks without preconditions.

What did Abbas say?

In a speech to the UN General Assembly full of accusations, PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared that as a result of Israeli breaches of the Olso Accords, “We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying Power.” He described Palestine as a “state under occupation” and – repeating a message he issued at the UN a year ago – said it was “no longer useful to waste time in negotiations for the sake of negotiations.” He called instead for “international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation.”

However, he did not refer to any specific deadline or measures, such as the dissolution of the PA, his own resignation, or ceasing of security or economic cooperation. In addition, he urged international donors to continue “to support a better life for our people and our efforts to develop our State institutions,” which appears contrary to any suggestion he intends to return the authorities of the PA to Israel.

What does it mean?

Abbas’s words in themselves trigger no immediate change on the ground, and it remains to be seen when and if there will be follow up action. It was reported in recent days that Abbas was talked down from more specific ultimatums or declarations by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The speech was interpreted by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as a conditional warning.

The threat to stop being bound by the Oslo accords is not new. Abbas referred to a Palestinian Central Council decision in March 2015 which empowered Abbas to cease security cooperation with Israel, but which has not been acted upon. Quiet coordination between the Palestinian Security Forces and the IDF is bedrock of stability in the West Bank, allowing Palestinian forces to maintain order and operate against extremists in PA areas, and including regular meetings and sharing of intelligence.

Given that the PA is the largest employer in the West Bank, and depends on security cooperation with Israel to fend of threats from Hamas, it is not surprising that past threats to dissolve itself, or stop co-ordination with Israel have gone unfulfilled. Furthermore, such a step would appear to counter the PA goal of developing the institutions of a state. Nonetheless, Abbas’s speech reflects increasing Palestinian frustration and support for radical steps.

Why is Abbas doing this?

In recent years, Mahmoud Abbas has increasingly branded bilateral negotiations with Israel under the Oslo framework a failure, and tried to secure unilaterally the recognition of Palestine as “state under occupation”. This is an explicit attempt to change the paradigm of the conflict and build international pressure on Israel to end the occupation unconditionally, as opposed to through negotiation as envisaged by Oslo. Whilst Abbas blames Israel for the failure of past negotiations, Israelis in turn blame his unwillingness to compromise by addressing Israeli concerns.

Currently Abbas faces declining domestic legitimacy, having not faced elections in more than ten years, and challenged by his rivals in Hamas who control the Gaza Strip. Confronting Israel in international forums and though “popular resistance” (low level violence and demonstrations) is much more popular domestically then negotiating with Israel. He also seeks to raise the Palestinian issue back up the international diplomatic agenda, where Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal have taken centre stage.

How have Israelis reacted to Abbas’s words?

Abbas’s speech has been sharply criticised by Israelis across the political spectrum. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abbas’s speech was “deceitful and encourages incitement and lawlessness in the Middle East.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog rejected Abbas’s accusations of apartheid but accused both Abbas and Netanyahu of being leaders who “are afraid to make decisions and prefer slogans and mutual recriminations.” Tzipi Livni, who has twice led Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians said: “The time has come for the Palestinian leadership to realize that a Palestinian state can only be realised through agreements that guarantee Israel’s security.” Meanwhile, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, in New York to promote his own proposals for a regional peace conference condemned Abbas’s “terrible words of incitement.”

Times of Israel Arab affairs commentator Avi Issacharoff described the speech as a “cry for help”, reflecting Abbas’s despondency and lack of options. Meanwhile Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote that, “Jerusalem’s initial analysis of the speech interpreted it as a mere threat.”

What will happen next?

Addressing the UN on Thursday, Prime Minister Netanyahu is likely to respond to Abbas’s accusations and highlight the PA’s role in incitement against Israel, whilst at the same time reiterating his own readiness to resume negotiations.

More broadly, the lack of diplomatic progress, high levels of frustration among the Palestinian public, and heightened tensions surrounding issues of access to the Temple Mount, are raising concerns of an escalation in violence on the ground. This is despite recent moves by Israel to ease the situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which have been welcomed internationally.

At the same time, there are reports of attempts to broker renewed contacts between Abbas and Netanyahu. The Quartet met on Wednesday and intends to send envoys to meet with the parties and to expand its engagement of other regional states in the process. US Secretary of State John Kerry may also re-engage personally in the process, according to reports. A report in Haaretz states that diplomats from all four Quartet members will begin a visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah on October 15.

What is the background?

The 1995 Interim Agreement (which came two years after the initial Oslo Agreement), extended Palestinian self-rule to all the major Palestinian population centres in Gaza and the West Bank and defined relations between Israel and the PA. It was supposed to be superseded in 1999 by a permanent status agreement. Various attempts to broker such an agreement (in 2000-2001, 2008 and 2014) have resulted in Israel proposing or accepting broad terms for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Palestinian rejection of those terms. Gaps remain on the issues of borders, Jerusalem, and the claimed rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Both Israel and the Palestinians accuse each other of countless breaches of the Oslo Accords since they were signed. The Palestinian attempt to secure legal recognition of the State of Palestine and join international treaties such as the Rome Statute, for example, are breaches of the commitments made by both sides not to unilaterally change the status quo. Nonetheless, despite the failure to reach a final status agreement, numerous rounds of violence, and the collapse in relations between the leaders, the Interim Agreement remains the framework which shapes relations between the parties, in the absence of an alternative.


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