Palestinian-Arabs in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) are not a very happy bunch these days, and not just because of Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Contrary to western media hype of a potential explosion of violence due to U.S. President Trump’s announcement, protests in the Palestinian territories were relatively subdued. Only a few thousand Palestinians participated in demonstrations at their peak. All considered, it was hardly the new Intifada that the terrorist group Hamas has called for.
Palestinians, it seems, have much greater concerns to attend to. Mahmoud Abbas’ (Abu Mazen) less than inspiring leadership, whose presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA) ended in January, 2009, has not called for elections since. This month will mark the 9th year that Abbas has held the office of President of the PA without a mandate from the people. Worse yet, Abbas’ Fatah party was kicked out of the Gaza Strip in 2007 by Hamas, which won a parliamentary majority in 2006. The autocratic Abbas, in the words of Palestinian civil and human rights activist, Bassem Eid, “represents only his wife and three sons.”
Mahmoud Abbas is responsible for failing to accept the generous peace deal offered to him in 2008 by the dovish Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In a New York Times article (June 11, 2011), former PM Olmert said that he and Abbas were very close to a peace deal two years earlier. Abbas however hesitated, and Olmert was then beset by legal troubles, as well as the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel, all which caused their talks to end.
In his memoirs published by Israel’s daily Yediot Ahronot, and in an interview with the New York Times, Olmert revealed that the two sides had agreed on key principles: the state of Palestine would have no military; an American-led international security force, not Israeli soldiers, would be stationed on its border with Jordan; Jerusalem would be shared, with the holy sites overseen by a multinational committee; and a limited number of Palestinian refugees would be permitted back into what is now Israel, while the rest would be generously compensated. The two agreed that Israel would keep some land in the West Bank on which settlements had been built, but disagreed on how much. Abbas failed to grab the best possible deal he was offered to make peace and establish a Palestinian state.
Abbas has sought instead to challenge Israel at the UN, and in other international agencies, hoping to create a Palestinian state through the UN, without having to negotiate with Israel. The Times of Israel (April 1, 2014) reported that, “In an apparent breach of understandings with the U.S. and Israel, and with a proposed agreement to extend peace talks awaiting a Palestinian response, PA President Mahmoud Abbas signed an official appeal to join 15 UN and international bodies.”
There is also the on and off reconciliation deals between Fatah and Hamas. In October of last year, the Cairo talks between the two rival parties under Egyptian mediation seemed hopeful, but the make-up deal, like the previous six that preceded it, is yet to be implemented. In the meantime, the three wars with Israel that Hamas has initiated through its terror attacks and rocket launching into Israel, have brought only misery to the Gaza Strip, where half of the population is unemployed and poverty among the masses is raging.
While the Palestinian cause may be the only unifying subject among the Arab states, the Middle East proxy wars between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia in Syria and Yemen and civil war in Libya, have shifted the focus of the Arab world away from the Palestinians. Arab countries offered little more than empty condemnations over the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Saudi Arabia is keener on maintaining Israel as a strategic ally against Iran, albeit, a tacit one, than submitting to Palestinian demands to take hostile measures against Israel and the U.S. And, while the Palestinians consider the U.S. administration peace plans insulting, the Saudis call the U.S. peace plan serious, and have pressed the Palestinians to support it.
The average Palestinian has more immediate concerns than worrying about President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Palestinians are preoccupied with such basics needs as food, shelter, water, and health. Many young people in the West Bank, even those with college degrees, dream of moving to the West or the Gulf states for a better life. In Gaza, Hamas is no longer enjoying broad support from the populace. It is now subjected to criticism, and some Gazans are even nostalgic for the days when Israel controlled the territory. When asked about their most pressing problems, less than a third cite Israeli “occupation.” Many consider unemployment, poverty, and corruption more urgent problems.
The Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research asked the following questions in a December, 2017 survey: What problem should be the top priority of the PA? Respondents named occupation and settlements 29.2%, unemployment and poverty 26.4%, and corruption in public institutions 20.2%. According to the PCPSR, 70% of Palestinians want President Abbas to resign; the level of satisfaction with Abbas’ performance stands at only 31%. Only 34% believe that people can criticize the PA without fear. 41% of Gazans and 22% of West Bankers seek to immigrate to other countries, and 77% believe that corruption exists in PA institutions.
Another sign of Palestinian disillusionment with a future Palestinian state is the increased pace of applications by East Jerusalemites to become Israeli citizens. According to figures first published on the Times of Israel news site in September, the processing of requests has slowed down dramatically since 2014. Out of more than 4,000 individual applications, only 84 were approved, 161 were rejected and the rest are pending. Ten years ago, it was taboo for Palestinians in Jerusalem to request Israeli citizenship, but now it is the norm, with thousands of new requests each year, according to Israeli Interior Ministry figures. The wait time is about three years. USA Today reported that “increasing numbers of East Jerusalem Palestinians are choosing to live in Jewish neighborhoods. Separately, greater numbers of local Palestinians are choosing to send their children to Arabic-language schools using Israeli curricula.”
Mahmoud Abbas has lacked the authority of his predecessor, and is devoid of the charisma that younger Palestinians contenders possess. But then again, Abbas cannot make peace with Israel when the majority of his Palestinian people reject compromise with the Jewish state. This is the ostensible reason Abbas has sought an enforced solution by the UN, which would not require him to negotiate with Israel. It is also why he has chosen reconciliation with Hamas at the expense of negotiations with Israel. Like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, he has balked at the idea of ‘ending the conflict’ with Israel. He knows full well that a concession on the “right of return” or any fair compromise with Israel will cost him his life. In dealing with Ehud Olmert, Abbas had a chance to find such a fair compromise, but he failed to take it.
Perhaps the only road to peace is one PM Netanyahu has advocated, through economic development from the bottom up. The grim economic realities in the Palestinian territories, and the corruption among the leadership in Ramallah and Gaza, have disillusioned most Palestinians about the future. The failure to better his people’s lives through peace with Israel or decent governance makes Mahmoud Abbas a failed leader.