Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas is threatening the nuclear option

Faced with the threat of illegal annexation, the Palestinian Authority is signalling that it is running out of options

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Since Donald Trump became US President, the walls have been rapidly closing in on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and his commitment to negotiating a two-state agreement with Israel.

In January, Mr Trump issued a "peace proposal" that virtually invites Israel to annex about 30 per cent of the occupied West Bank, including the strategically crucial Jordan Valley. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, successfully campaigned to remain in office on a promise to do exactly that in the coming months.

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli border policewoman during a protest marking the 72nd anniversary of Nakba and against Israeli plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, in the village of Sawiya near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli border policewoman during a protest against Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, near Nablus in the West Bank on May 15, 2020. Reuters

The Trump administration has asked Tel Aviv to wait until a joint Israeli-US mapping committee determines which chunks of Palestinian territory Washington will allow Israel to devour. Palestinians have not been included in any of these conversations whatsoever. Naturally, they are desperate to assert their agency, make themselves relevant, and press the international community to act fast to save the possibility of a two-state peace agreement.

On Tuesday, Mr Abbas voiced this anguish, declaring: “The Palestine Liberation Organisation [of which he is the chairman] and the State of Palestine are no longer committed to all signed agreements and understandings with the Israeli government and the American government, including security commitments.”

It's not clear what this announcement will mean in practical terms for the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah and its considerable administrative and governance role in the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. But by adding that Israel would now have to “uphold responsibilities before the international community as the occupying power” he was clearly hinting at the PLO's long-standing “nuclear option” of dismantling the quasi-independent Palestinian administration that has been developed within the occupation's broader context since 1993.

(FILES) In this file photo Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, speaks during an interview following the INSS conference, on January 30, 2018 in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The UN's special Mideast envoy called May 20, 2020 on Israel to drop plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, joining a growing international chorus of opposition. Envoy Nickolay Mladenov also called on the Palestinians to resume talks with the so-called Quartet, comprising the US, Russia, the EU and the United Nations. "Israel must abandon threats of annexation," Mladenov said during a meeting of the Security Council.

Nickolay Mladenov, called May 20, 2020 on Israel to drop plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, joining a growing international chorus of opposition. AFP

Dismantling it would certainly create innumerable headaches for Israel. If the PA completely closes its institutions, Israel would theoretically have to step in and directly rule Palestinian towns as well as provide for the basic needs of the population.

That's not something many Israelis want to do, but it's not impossible either.

The greatest brunt, especially at first, would be felt by ordinary Palestinians, who would lose a wide range of administrative and social services and, in many cases, jobs; the PA and its subordinate agencies are the biggest employers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Completely renouncing the Oslo Accords and refusing to deal with Israel would also mean giving up most of the PA's operating budget, which is funded by Palestinian taxes that under the accords are collected by Israel and transferred to the Authority.

But apart from repeated declarations that the Palestinians have ended all security and intelligence co-operation with Israel and the US, there is no sign that the PA has changed its functional modus operandi. No one seems to have resigned from, let alone closed, any office, though Palestinian security forces have reportedly been withdrawing from certain areas.

The bottom line is that Palestinians have not developed any practicable alternative national strategy to seeking a political agreement with the Israelis. If negotiating with Israel now seems a complete dead-end, armed struggle has an even worse track record. And no one in their right mind really believes Israel is going to be brought to heel by the UN or to its knees by grassroots international boycotts.

So, this threat is probably an empty one, at least until a new leadership with an alternative vision emerges – although the dire situation certainly demonstrates the urgent need for both.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool Photo via AP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 19, 2020. AP

It is difficult to understand what Mr Abbas hoped to gain by this speech under the current circumstances. Some Palestinians whisper that the plan was for him to emphasise that this is what the PA and PLO had always intended to do in the event of a major Israeli annexation. That makes more sense, given that should Israel grab all that land such a response would probably be inevitable and arguably justifiable.

But it hasn't happened yet. And it may not. Publicly, the Trump administration is not urging Israelis to avoid annexation for the rest of the year, but it isn’t encouraging them either. It's hard to imagine that Mr Trump would be disappointed if the Israelis decide to wait and see what happens.

With the looming threat of a Joe Biden presidency, Tel Aviv may feel some urgency to act now. But Mr Biden has pointedly repeated his commitment to a two-state solution, and insists he won't be bound by any new commitments Mr Trump makes that would render it impossible, and is even prepared to reverse them. Is that a fight Israel really wants to have with Washington in 2021 and beyond?

Since it's unclear what the Israelis will do, why would Palestinians want to appear to be abrogating the very agreements, particularly the Oslo Accords' Declaration of Principles, that explicitly disallow annexation?

Apart from repeated declarations, there is no sign that the PA has changed its modus operandi

No doubt Mr Abbas is trying to remain relevant and to communicate the level of Palestinian desperation and despair to an apparently apathetic international community. But the price for such defiant-but-empty bluster – reminiscent of the "you're leaving because I want you to go" genre of torch song – is potentially quite high. Much wiser to let Israel administer the rhetorical as well as practical coup de grace to the Oslo process.

The Palestinian leadership has said this kind of thing before, although not quite so categorically, and then decided, in the cold light of day, that cancelling co-operation, let alone dismantling fledgling Palestinian national institutions, doesn't make much sense. It is, we keep discovering, easy and even habitual for both parties’ rash actions to hurt Palestinians and Israelis simultaneously.

Fortunately, Israel and the US are essentially ignoring the speech. Unfortunately, there may come a time when such drastic declarations and steps become unavoidable. But last week wasn't it. The immediate goal for all responsible actors must be avoiding such a calamitous, but closer than ever, point of no return.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington