BICOM Briefing | Grant Rumley: A win for the Palestinians

On 5 May 2017 BICOM hosted a phone briefing with Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In this briefing, Rumley discusses the political significance of the Trump-Abbas meeting in Washington on 3 May, as well as analyses the latest Hamas-Fatah dispute over Gaza, Hamas’s new document of political principles, and the likelihood of progress in the peace process under the Trump administration. Rumley and Amir Tibon are about to publish a new book called The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus Books, July 2017). Below is an edited transcript.

 I met Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at a reception in Washington, and the Palestinian Ambassador to the US Husam Zomlot introduced me as being a friend of Palestine and a friend of US President Donald Trump, an expression I didn’t think I would hear six months ago, or ever really. In general, the week was a pretty big win for the Palestinians, and I think Abbas came here almost ready to go into listening mode. They wanted to meet with Trump, air out where the starting positions were going to be on some of the negotiating issues and respond. They expected to hear about the payments to prisoners and the families of terrorists, and incitement, but there seemed to be no big ask of Abbas in this meeting. The only thing we really got in terms of details seems to be Spicer’s comments that confirmed it was brought up.

It looks like Trump really does want to engage, and work primarily with Abbas. And Abbas is certainly a lot more optimistic than he was a few months ago. He’s gone through two stages with Trump. After the election Abbas was preparing for an icy four years. He was looking at a Republican Congress, and a White House, that looked potentially hostile to the traditional peace process and to Palestinians in general. I think that was in part why Abbas initiated several measures to consolidate power at home, such as the Fatah Congress in November that I attended, where he pushed out a number of old rivals and reconsolidated his grip on power, and then in January-February the appointment of a vice president for the first time in Fatah’s history. But then the tone shifted in the US administration, which analysts put down to King Abdullah of Jordan meeting with Trump and bringing up the Palestinian issue and the peace process. So for Abbas it’s almost a tale of two Trumps, and they’re pleasantly happy with where he appears to be taking it.

It was domestically important when Abbas was one of the first foreign leaders that former President Barack Obama called. And for Abbas to come to the White House for the first time in three years, or just over 100 days into the new administration, and to have this bilateral meeting with the photos and Trump praising him, does a lot for him at home. There was talk that this US administration might try to outsource Abbas and work with the Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis, and the Palestinians are happy that they aren’t. I think the messages the Trump administration likely got from King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has shifted their focus towards working with the Palestinians, and this all helps at home for Abbas.

Netanyahu’s play ahead of this visit was to get Abbas to comment on payments to prisoners, which is Abbas’s biggest vulnerability. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal was to get Abbas to publicly distance himself from the current Palestinian hunger strike led by Marwan Barghouti – which is a case of Barghouti reorienting the entire Palestinian bureaucracy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from his jail cell – and to make a comment about reforming the payments, yet there was no ask on this from the White House, and so there is another reason for Palestinian celebration.

Palestinian succession

I’m not convinced the White House is paying a lot of attention to the issue of succession or long-term planning, which I think it should be doing. Abbas is 82. He is entering the thirteenth year of his four year term, smokes multiple packs of cigarettes a day and has had three heart operations. He named a vice president for the first time in the party’s history, but the person he appointed – Mahmoud, Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former governor of Nablus – cannot succeed Abbas outright and his clout isn’t such that he’s an heir-apparent. I think Abbas picked him to stymie the aspiration of Barghouti and Jibril Rajoub. Yet even the vice president’s appointment is mitigated by the fact that Fatah’s bylaws state that the position is only for a year. Given how with the Presidential terms of four years have stretched into 12, the vice president’s term could be stretched as well, but it’s not a permanent or necessarily stable solution.

The Hamas document

The Hamas document is not a new charter (and it doesn’t abrogate the previous charter) but is a new political document. There is a lot of strategically-placed misdirection and ambiguity by Khaled Meeshal. At the press conference in Doha he verbally stated he would be open to the 1967 borders (which is a position he has taken when addressing western media for years) but the document itself does not adopt the 1967 borders as a position, it merely acknowledges them as a position of national consensus. In addition, the document calls for the restructuring and ultimately the rebuilding of the PLO, which is part of Hamas’s goal of gaining access to the PLO, decreasing Fatah’s control, and becoming a legitimate party. It’s basically more of the same from Hamas.

The document came out on Monday 1 May in order to undercut the momentum Abbas would get from the US visit. Another aspect of the plan is to take a swipe at Fatah’s voters. Fatah is a spectrum on which one side is very pro negotiations, while at the other end there are those who still advocate armed resistance. This is a Hamas ploy at those who advocate a more violent approach.

I don’t see this document as moving the parties any closer towards reconciliation. If anything it will move them further apart.

Abbas optimistic about relations under Trump

All in all, Abbas has a lot to be happy about in terms of the White House visit and the state of the peace process. I think the situation at home is in worse shape, but I think the calculation in Ramallah is that they can go along with whatever Trump has in mind longer than Netanyahu can and stay in power. They look at Netanyahu’s position in his coalition, and the investigations surrounding him, and they think that at some point both parties are going to have to say no to Trump. And doing this will likely hurt Netanyahu at home, and help Abbas at home. That’s the calculation now.

Question: What are your thoughts on the two parallel tracks – an Israeli-Palestinian track and a regional track? And is this part of a bigger vision, or is it just a short-term seduction?

 The two tracks and regional initiatives were appealing to Trump and his transition team early on. They saw Israel’s budding relationships with the Gulf countries and looked to capitalise on that. There were ten months where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Abbas were feuding over Mohammed Dahlan and I don’t know if the transition team were aware of the Dahlan-Abbas rivalry. However, at some point the calculation shifted, the Trump administration called Abbas, made him the address, and then al-Sisi and Abbas met, and more broadly the Arab quartet realised that the White House wanted to work with Abbas. Therefore, they had to bury the hatchet for the time being. Because ultimately everyone is afraid of Trump, and they don’t want to push back against the White House. So al-Sisi and Abdullah don’t want to risk this, and if Trump wants to work with Abbas and go back to bilateral traditional negotiations, then they’re going to work to position themselves as facilitators of that. I think the outside-in approach is likely discarded right now.

Question: So you don’t think there’s going to be the outer regional circle, and an incentive to Israel in terms of the Arab Peace Initiative (API)?

 I think it will be a part of it, but I think Trump is going to go for dessert first. He is going to take whatever the latest version of the bridging document former US Secretary of State John Kerry used in 2014, give it to both sides and say let’s work on this. Trump doesn’t want Wye River, he wants Camp David. I think in general, the API will be the sweetener to it. Ultimately, my view is that the Arab Quartet is needed to pressure Abbas to commit. You have to create the conditions where Abbas can’t say no and walk away, like he did with Ehud Olmert and Obama. The quartet has a role to play in this area, but it won’t be a prominent role overall.

Question: Are you being overly optimistic about the way it plays domestically in the West Bank? There was no reference to a Palestinian state or two-state solution in Trump’s remarks.

 It has had diminishing returns at home vis-à-vis Abbas. Hamas and the PFLP criticised him at home, but from the Fatah rank and file, he’s entered into a period of Pater Familias, the patriarch of the movement. This is his stick, and what are his other options? Reconciliation with Hamas is a dead end, pursuing armed resistance is something he won’t do, and international campaign Palestine 194 has also hit a dead end since the International Criminal Court. Trump showering praise on Abbas is a net positive, but not a huge bump.

I do not put much stock in Trump not mentioning the two-state solution during the press conference with Abbas. I think it was probably one of his advisors telling to avoid talking about it, following the comments he made when he met Netanyahu that probably got more headlines than they would have liked. What I liked about Trump’s comments was that he praised Abbas’s role in the Oslo Accords, he seemed to grasp the history of the US’s role, and highlighted the positives of what Abbas has brought to the Palestinian national project. In general, the symbolism of having the US and Palestinian flag in the White House signals that they’re going to work with Abbas, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to work to anything other than the traditional two state process, at least until they have Abbas on board.

Question: Are we overanalysing Trump’s interests here? It seems to be low on his list of priorities, and getting lower. Also, Israel and the PA appear to be happy with the status quo of no real change. Are we therefore going to see lots of talk but no substantive movement?

 In the Middle East, there are a lot of other scenarios that have stronger arguments for US investment and involvement. However, I think the opposite is likely to be the case when it comes to this President. I think this is a true top priority for him. It is low risk high reward for him, in the sense that if he pursues it and gets it done, his brand as the greatest negotiator of all time is solidified. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t much hurt him at all. This is a President who is very cognisant of his brand, and his White House will almost certainly leave the conflict in worse shape if he doesn’t commit to this long term. I think this is likely the fear amongst Israelis and Palestinians right now. I think for Trump it truly is a top priority – for better or for worse – and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for international negotiations, is the point person on this.

Question: How do you read Abbas’s motivations? How far does Abbas want to go? How aware is he of his own mortality? What does he want to leave behind?

 The overall thesis of our new book is that Abbas a tragic figure.  A Palestinian leader needs both the willingness to sign an agreement and the ability to deliver it. In the US we have ignored the fact that since 2007 he doesn’t have the ability, since Hamas controls Gaza, and as a result any compromise to come out of peace negotiations will just become too much of a liability for him at home. For him to compromise on Jerusalem would just expose him to his rivals – in Hamas and in his own party. I think the smartest thing he could have done would have been to accept with reservations Obama’s offer in 2014. An American president in his second term with two years left willing to go to bat for you – you can’t really ask for much more from a Palestinian perspective. Nothing underscores Abbas’s paranoia and risk aversion more than ignoring that offer.

On the other hand, with the conversations I have had with people in the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit and in the delegation, there is a perception that Trump is a wildcard, and the sense is that they can pursue this further than Netanyahu, and Trump can pressure Netanyahu in ways Obama never could, and this could be a strategic asset for the Palestinians if they’re able to go further than Netanyahu is. This is a serious “if,” and most peace processes are defined by the Palestinians being optimistic at the onset and then losing faith. Most recently, they lost faith over the US’s ability to extract concessions from Netanyahu.

For Abbas, the peace process is also a domestic issue, in the sense that he can pursue it and at least look like he is doing something. One of the biggest knocks on Abbas at home is over what he actually does. He spends the majority of the year outside of the West Bank, and so the idea that he would be in Europe with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or in the White House with Trump, Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, helps him a little at home. However, ultimately I don’t think he wants to get trapped. Trump wants the deal, to start knit picking over final parameters. I think there will be a disconnect at some point, but its question of who reaches it first, and if the Palestinians are willing to go further with this – as they plan to – than Netanyahu is.

Question: So Abbas wants the process, but not the deal? And when the process is over he wants to be able to blame Netanyahu?

 Yes exactly.

Question: If he knows he can’t deliver a deal, and if the chasm between him and the people is so great that even a deal which is as good as it gets can’t be delivered, isn’t his inability to get the confidence of the people is the problem?

 I think he is cognisant of that gap and his deficiencies as a leader. He wasn’t in the camps in Lebanon with the PLO; he was in Damascus or Russia. He is the master of palace politics in Ramallah, controlling the Fatah Central Committee and steering the party, but he doesn’t go to the camps and cities and break iftar with the families of prisoners and martyrs as Arafat would. He doesn’t have the pulse of the people with him. Whether that’s by design or neglect, I can’t say. But I do think he’s aware of it. I also think that there an element of West Bank condescension towards Gaza at play, and insular thinking in Ramallah vis-à-vis Gaza. What they have conveyed to Washington is that Hamas can be dealt with later. This is however faulty logic, because ultimately for Abbas he is risk averse, and can’t go out and sell concessions on the street. And if he can’t do that and he signs an agreement that doesn’t have assurances, and it’s likely none will have the assurances that he needs, it will just be a liability for him while the deal is implemented.

Question: Palestinians in the West Bank say we need Abbas to sign, to make the historical compromise, otherwise successors won’t be able to. Do you buy that as a thesis?

 I think its manoeuvring and politicking for them to come to a new US administration and say we are the central address, this is a historic opportunity and Abbas is the last person that can do it. I think it’s a concerted effort to demonstrate primacy to Trump, and to demonstrate that Abbas was the person with which they needed to work. But I don’t buy that. Their reasoning is all factual – he’s one of the last members of the founding generation and is an original refugee from Safed. He has shrunk the circles around him – losing Gaza, losing touch with his party, isolating people like Yasser Abed-Rabbo and Salam Fayyad. He has shrunk the court so much that it’s basically him and a handful of advisors. I think ultimately at this point the goal isn’t to take a major risk for an agreement but to ensure his grip on power is not threatened and that he can navigate the next couple of years.

Question: If and when Abbas goes, can anyone else sign an agreement?

 I’d put money on Jibril Rajoub being the one to replace him, and that’s primarily a function of where he sits within the party, and his position on the street. A leader is needed that would take some risks vis-à-vis Gaza, one who is not afraid to go to elections and challenge Hamas democratically instead of going ad nauseam into the reconciliation process. I think both Fatah and Hamas realise they’re just ideologically incompatible right now. With renewed legitimacy and with a leader who feels sure of himself on the street, they could go into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and be willing to take more risks. At this point Abbas is so risk averse that anyone would look bolder and have more vision than him right now.

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