Abbas Sidelines U.S., With Maximum Drama


Backing out of a planned trip to the Jewish state at the last minute, Mike Pence just saved himself the embarrassment of a potentially disastrous Israel visit. Now, the prospects of moving the peace process forward seem to be dependent on the Palestinian leadership getting their house in order before the rescheduled visit in just under a month.

The U.S. vice president cited the tax overhaul vote in Congress when he announced on Monday that he wouldn’t be traveling Tuesday. Left with the option of flying into a region in disarray and be boycotted by the Palestinians, one suspects Pence is breathing a sigh of relief.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, livid at Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plan to move the embassy there, was refusing to meet with him, as were other Palestinian officials.

Abbas’ political party, Fatah, had been calling for Palestinians to greet Pence with popular displays of anger. “We call for angry protests at the entrances to Jerusalem and in its Old City to coincide with the visit,” it said in a statement.

Protestors are easy to recruit these days, as they have a new icon, since wheelchair-bound protester Ibrahim Abu Thurayya, 29, was killed by Israeli forces. His funeral on Saturday drew huge crowds and turned into a galvanizing event for anti-Israel violence. “With his death, there is no valid excuse not to fight,” said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.

The death of Abu Thurayya has given the Palestinians protesting Donald Trump’s Jerusalem policy a new rallying cry, and his image is going viral on Arabic-language social media. He is being described as an angel — and in many posts and news articles depicted as one, too.

Pence would have arrived as Gaza militants were flexing their muscles, having launched more than 12 rockets towards Israel since the Trump announcement on Jerusalem — and the flow of rockets often increases during high-profile visits. This rocket fire is causing anger among Israelis — as is the fact that a Jewish security guard is in the hospital after being stabbed by a terrorist at a Jerusalem bus station.

On Monday night, Abbas gathered Palestinian leaders in Ramallah to outline his new strategy — and talk tough about the U.S., which must now “face the measures we have begun to take.” The Palestinians will shift their unilateral moves for statehood up a gear, by seeking full membership of the United Nations and signing 22 international agreements.

His meeting came just hours after his international allies failed their bid to get the United Nations to use its power to get an “annulment” of Trump’s position. Their Security Council resolution said that any actions that change the status of Jerusalem “have no legal effect, are null and void.”

The resolution was supported by 14 states, including key U.S. allies Britain and France, and opposed by just one, the U.S. — but Washington used its veto power to keep it off the books. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised America’s ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, saying that she “spoke like a Maccabee” and “one defeated the many.”

This outcome at the U.N. reflects Abbas’ overall response to the Trump declaration: maximum drama, zero constructive impact. It was inevitable that the U.S. would veto a resolution that was drafted to undermine its own policy, but the drama was good for Ramallah. Abbas was suddenly more relevant than he has been for years when he gave the keynote speech of a special Istanbul summit that was convened to hear his response to Trump.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has rarely paid so much attention to Abbas, a politician who struggles for popularity even among Palestinians, as when he was on the Istanbul podium trashing the U.S. “It was, perhaps, the speech of his life,” observed Middle East Eye. Abbas declared: “We do not accept any role of the United States in the political process from now on, because it is completely biased towards Israel.”

Abbas oscillates between dismissing the Trump position as irrelevant, and assigning it with the upmost importance. It was “worthless” when he spoke to Palestinian leaders on Monday, but in Istanbul, where the world was his stage, it was an historic development. “A hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, Trump offered Jerusalem as a gift to Israel,” he said.

Abbas is turning to anyone whom he sees as an alternative, or a counter-balance, to the U.S. He has a firm friend in Turkish President Erdogan, and is pinning hopes on the U.N., which he said should become the Middle East mediator instead of the U.S. At midweek, he was departing for Saudi Arabia, where he was expected to ask leaders to intensify their position against Trump’s Jerusalem stance.

But this sidelining of the U.S. and turning to others is a pretense. It’s the kind of angry reaction that is fashionable in this part of the world — including among Israelis. Let’s remember that when the Palestinians scored a victory for their unilateral statehood moves in 2012, becoming a “non-member observer state” at the U.N., Israel decided to respond by progressing plans to build in the highly controversial E1 area of the West Bank. This construction never happened.

Abbas knows that if Trump wills it, sooner or later he will find himself sitting in talks that Washington convenes. And Trump isn’t going to allow himself to be sidelined in the Middle East. Despite its name “America First,” the American foreign policy outlined on Monday “celebrates America’s influence in the world as a positive force that can help set the conditions for peace and prosperity and for developing successful societies.”

The only question is how much drama Abbas will orchestrate, and how much blood will be spilled, before Ramallah is once again looking to Washington.

Abbas should contact Pence as soon as possible to schedule a summit for his rescheduled visit, and come up with a sensible list of requests that he believes could move peace closer. One such request could be for a declaration by Trump about the importance of Jerusalem to Palestinians and what role he views it taking in a future peace process. Nothing in his declaration on the Jerusalem recognition that delighted Israelis ruled out a parallel declaration that would please Palestinians.

Abbas is in the spotlight. He may despise Trump and hate his Jerusalem position, but his answer should be to seize this opportunity, show leadership and get ready to greet Pence next month with possibilities, not protests. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.