Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations Wednesday that the Palestinians no longer see themselves as bound by their two-decades-old peace agreements with Israel.
It was a provocative but vague move that speaks as much to the eroding public support for the Palestinian Authority president at home as it does a desire to pressure the Jewish state internationally and to indirectly threaten a new uprising.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly, Mr. Abbas accused Israel of violating the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s – a situation he argued perpetuates Israel’s dominance of the Palestinian residents and renders his government effectively powerless.
“They leave us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them,” Abbas said. “We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”
Though the Palestinian president refused to detail exactly what his statement means in terms of how his government works with Israel – most critically whether his security forces will continue to coordinate with the Israeli military – it could trigger rising confrontations with Israel and an erosion in functioning of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The statement delivered on a pre-speech vow to make a “bombshell” announcement from the General Assembly podium. That stemmed in part from a need to offset a significant erosion in his standing and growing antigovernment unrest around the West Bank, says Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster who spoke hours before the speech.
“He feels his legitimacy is eroding,” Mr. Shikaki says. “He realizes that he has to take significant steps to contain the prevailing perception among the public that he’s a failure.”
Only a week ago in this overcrowded West Bank refugee camp south of Ramallah, some of that sentiment was on display as hundreds of protesters faced down Palestinian security forces. Though it was supposed to be a show of solidarity in defense of Muslim holy sites at a time of clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City, demonstrators also vented frustration with Abbas and his government.
Two-thirds wanted him to resign
“We were chanting, ‘Yasqut Abbas, Yasqut Abbas,’ ” Arabic for “may Abbas fall,” recalls Yaqkhin Mohammed, a 16-year-old resident of Al Amari. “He is a failure of a president. I won’t display his picture.”
A similar protest flared days earlier in the West Bank city of Bethlehem as residents there protested the beating of a local youth by Palestinian security forces. Some demonstrators wore T-shirts reading “Irhal Abbas,” borrowing a word for “go home” popularized in Egypt’s Arab Spring protests four years ago.
Shikaki corroborated in a survey this month that antigovernment sentiment among Palestinians is now widespread. The survey found that two thirds of Palestinians would like Abbas to resign and that a majority want a return to an armed uprising against Israel. And yet, the same survey suggested there is no consensus on who should succeed Abbas – evidence of ongoing political atrophy.
The negative sentiment – its depth is remarkable according to Shikaki even against the backdrop of years of public malaise toward Abbas’s leadership – is driven by a mix of factors.
First and foremost, it reflects disillusionment with his championing of diplomacy over armed conflict with Israel, which has failed to achieve statehood. The latest attempt at peace negotiations ran aground more than a year ago, while Palestinians see only the gradual expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Daily security cooperation at stake
It also reflects frustration with Palestinian politics, which have atrophied following a rift between Abbas and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. No less important, the declining numbers reflect eroding credibility for Abbas, who turned 80 this year and periodically declares his desire to resign after more than 10 years in office but never acts on it. Then there are longstanding allegations that Abbas hasn't rooted out corruption in the PA.
“This is unprecedented to see Abbas’s status going down in this way… There’s a lack of confidence in the public mind that he can change the status quo,” says Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “The feeling is that he is not able to lead in ending the occupation, not able to lead in unifying the Palestinians, and not able to end the corruption.”
At the UN Wednesday, Abbas said “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power because the status quo cannot continue.” He left, just hours before the first-ever raising of the Palestinian flag at the UN.
Analysts don’t expect Abbas to end the daily cooperation between the governments in daily affairs, but admit the statement could take on a life of its own and unravel the relationship.
“He didn’t say anything operative, and my guess is nothing operative will be done,’’ says Gershon Baskin, an Israeli expert on ties with the Palestinians who believes it’s part of an effort to get the international community to pressure Israel.
Abbas was vulnerable
Abbas was initially welcomed by the international community and the Palestinian public when he took over chairmanship of the PLO following the death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.
But the failure of negotiations, expansion of Israeli settlements, and his support for security coordination with Israel – seen as tamping down a new uprising for the last 10 years – have left him vulnerable to attack. The rift with Hamas and failure to agree on new elections after his five-year term expired in 2010 have also undermined his credibility.
As Al Amari’s main street slowly came to life this week at the end of the Eid el-Adha holiday, a group of men opening their shops sharply criticized their president and the Palestinian government.
“People are fed up with him. He has done nothing for them. They hoped he would heal the Palestinian internal politics and make peace with Israel,” says Showkeit Said, a plumber. He says his mother was fired from a job in government, dominated by Abbas’s secular Fatah party, when she told people of her support for Hamas. “He doesn’t allow freedom of speech. He suppressed the demonstrations and the armed resistance. He works only for the sake of Israel.”
'Serious change in attitude'
But the Palestinian leader has his defenders in the refugee camp. “Our criticism is sometimes unfair,” says Sha’er Haroun, a government employee, as opponents from the neighborhood angrily accused him of bias. “No one accepts the successor of Yasser Arafat.”
Abbas was credited in the international community with reforming the Palestinian security forces and dismantling Aqsa Brigades militant cells that fought Israel while sowing lawlessness in the West Bank. But as his support erodes, there has been rising endorsement for a return to armed conflict with Israel and growing disillusionment with the goal of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“Most of the Fatah people in the camp have created a mutiny against him,” says Khurbani, an Al Amari shopkeeper who refused to give his full name for fear of arrest. “Every camp has an Aqsa Brigades that has split off from him.”
Shikaki, the pollster, says the jump in support for a new intifada – 57 percent compared with 49 percent three months ago – “is a serious change in attitude,” he says. “It reflects loss of confidence in the leadership, a loss of confidence in diplomacy, increasing suspicion in the PA – whether it is an asset or liability.”