Threaten to survive: Beyond Abbas's hollow ultimatums to Israel and the United Nations

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds up a Vision for Peace map while speaking at the United Nations (UN) Security Council on February 11, 2020 in New York City [Getty Images]
5 min read
29 September, 2021

One year to end the occupation of Palestinian territories. This was the ultimatum given by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas during his speech at the UNGA last Friday, supposedly meant as a turning point in Palestinian diplomacy.

However, It is not the first time that Mahmoud Abbas has made such a turn. In December 2010, Abbas threatened to dissolve the Palestinian authority. In April 2014 he threatened to dissolve it once more. Then in May 2020 he announced the end of security coordination with Israel, only to resume it later the same year.

"The repetitive aspect of these big political announcements is analogous to taking a turn to the right so many times that one ends up at their original starting point. The main reason the PA keeps making these statements is to maintain a political relevance, to live another day"

Difficult moment

This pattern alone makes the ultimatum anything but a surprise. However, the internal and external conditions of the PA might give a more revealing explanation to Abbas’s speech. The head of the PA made his intervention at the UNGA months after internal turmoil in the Palestinian territories.

In May, Palestinians across the Green Line mobilized against the Israeli occupation in a unique sense of unity. The popular masses then refocused their protests towards the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in reaction to the death of political dissident Nizar Banat whilst in custody. The intensity of the situation was such that it provoked criticism towards the PA at the international level.

All these events came in the aftermath of Abbas’s decision, in April, to postpone the long-awaited legislative and presidential elections, planned for May, “until there is a guarantee that we can hold elections in Jerusalem”,  as Abbas reaffirmed in his UNGA speech last week. The last time Palestinians voted was in 2006, while Abbas himself ended his constitutional term in 2009. The lack of elections means, amongst other things, the continuation of the Palestinian internal division between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.

Palestinian protesters rally in Ramallah city in the occupied West Bank on July 17, 2021, denouncing the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the aftermath of the death of activist Nizar Banat while in the custody of PA security forces [Getty Images]
In recent months, popular distain towards the Palestinian Authority has intensified after the death of opposition activist Nazar Binat in P.A custody [Getty Images]

Adding to the complexity of the PA’s context, the peace process with Israel was confirmed to be at a dead-end by the Israeli PM, Naftali Bennett who last week declared that he won’t meet Abbas any time soon. US president Joe Biden also made clear during his speech at the UNGA last week that the Palestinian issue was not a priority on his agenda.

“From a political stand to practical steps”

In this context, Abbas’s announcement to go to the International Court of Justice within a year, should the ongoing occupation not come to an end, is a clear attempt to “encourage the international community put pressure on Israel”, as Palestine’s representative to the UN Riyadh Mansour told The New Arab on Sunday. “There remains an international consensus over the end of the occupation”, Mansour explained, “President Abbas’s speech and the Palestinian diplomatic approach remains to call upon this international consensus to move from a mere political stand towards pragmatic, practical steps".

Esmat Mansour, Palestinian political analyst and activist, however believes that “this attempt is not a realistic one, purely because it’s doesn’t rely on a political will to break out of the US monopoly over the peace process, but rather an attempt to revive the same old political process which most Palestinians already concede is dead”. In fact, Abbas called upon the UN Secretary General to organize a peace conference, under the auspices of the same peace process quartet.

The quartet includes the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN. Riyadh Mansour explains that “the quartet is an international formation borne out of the Security Council, and it. Again however, Esmat Mansour sees “the quartet as non-existent. On the ground, there is no quartet, and the international community isn’t any more interested in reviving the peace process than the US is”.

“Buying time”?

Ubai Aboudi, director of the Bissan Research Center, a Palestinian think-tank based in Ramallah, thinks that “the idea of asking the international community to get involved in a peace process remains unrealistic”. Aboudi stresses that “internationally, it works against the PA. The donor community, especially the European countries, have been investing heavily into the PA’s reform and institution building process, and there has been little outcome”.

"[Abbas] knows that the occupation will not end in a year. This delay is an attempt to buy time, internally and externally"

The European Union continues to be a major donor to the PA, particularly since 2016 when the Trump administration cut all funding programs to the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, Aboudi stressed that “the financial situation of the PA is also critical. Salary irregularities have become usual under the pandemic, and this has increased social tensions internally”.

To Aboudi, “a delay of a year is an attempt to make a stand in front of Palestinian society, that the PA is attempting to do something to solve things”. Esmat Mansour goes beyond that, stating that “the Palestinian president could have announced of going to the International Court of Justice immediately. He knows that the occupation will not end in a year. This delay is an attempt to buy time, internally and externally”.

Sincere, but not realistic

To Dr. Riyadh Mansour though, there is more than just buying time in Abbas’s one year delay. “The mission ahead of us is to mobilize as much international support as possible” he stated. “We need to engage international partners to get them to support the Palestinian position practically. This is an ongoing process that needs time to give results”.

Yet, Aboudi however points out that “The repetitive aspect of making these big political announcements is analogous to taking a turn to the right so many times that one ends up at their original starting point. The main reason the PA keeps making these statements is to maintain a political relevance, to live another day".

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the Palestinian territories since 2014 in Arabic, English and French. He has co-authored two books in French, "Terre Sainte Guerre Sainte?" and "Taybeh, dernier village Chrétien de Palestine". He is also the founder and editor of the "7ara36" blog in Arabic.