The mood in the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is sombre. This old, frail and depressed Palestinian leader, according to a former Palestinian official, has been seeing things coming to an end, including the Palestinian cause as it has been not just from the 1940s to the 1980s, but also since the Madrid Peace Conference in the early 1990s and until the election of current US President Donald Trump.
The leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA), according to visitors, knows that he has been weakened by Palestinian differences, the confused regional situation, and the international obsession with the issues of terror and migration.
Today, it would be hard for many Palestinian officials in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip or the Fatah-controlled Ramallah to contest Abbas’s fears for the traditional Palestinian cause.
It would be equally hard to find any Hamas or Fatah leader who has faith that the peace plan currently being cooked up by the Trump administration will do justice to Palestinian rights, even by the standards of former US president Bill Clinton, whose proposals were rejected by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“Nobody can say exactly what the plan will be like, even if the Americans are saying that we could be pleasantly surprised. We know that we won’t be, as there are some basic grievances entailed by the plan, obviously in relation to Jerusalem, acknowledged by the US as the capital of Israel, and the issue of the refugees, but also on the issues of territory, sovereignty and basic national rights,” said one Palestinian source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly.
The same source added that there was “increasing Arab pressure on Abbas to look at things from a more realistic perspective. The Arabs are telling him to take what is being offered because it is better than nothing. They say that what the Palestinians are being offered today is much less than what they have been offered before, and it will likely keep on dwindling.”
If Abbas had had any hopes that this pressure would subside in view of recent developments on the ground, with Israel killing 16 peaceful demonstrators in Gaza last week, he would have known by Sunday evening from the deliberations leading to an extraordinary Arab League meeting on developments in Gaza that the majority of the Arab countries are not anywhere near changing their positions.
They want Abbas to go into unconditional talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and agree on a deal that the Palestinian leader has said is “extremely difficult to accept”.
According to an Arab League source who spoke before the meeting opened at the League’s Cairo headquarters on Tuesday morning, the maximum that the Arab countries will support is a statement from the UN secretary-general calling on Israel to refrain from using force.
In statements during the opening session of the meeting, the permanent representatives of the most influential Arab countries refrained from openly condemning the Israeli aggression, with some even “calling on all parties” to refrain from confrontation, the source said.
According to one Egyptian diplomat, “our take is that we could go on and on as we have been going on during the past 20 years or so since Arafat rejected the Clinton deal and then end up with nothing. The focus now should be on the political path towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, even if it starts with limited legal status or on part of what should eventually be the full territory of a Palestinian state,” he said.
This position is what Abbas will be asked to accept when he goes to the Arab Summit meeting that is scheduled to convene in ten days’ time in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
The Saudis, according to the source in Abbas’s office, have already sent the Palestinian president a message promising strong financial support and political backing against Hamas if Abbas agrees to start talks that seem to be set to take place later this year.
“We don’t know exactly when Trump is planning to propose his plan, but reports suggest that the leading Arab capitals are urging the US president to announce it soon,” the Palestinian source said.
It is an open secret that Riyadh and other Arab Gulf states wish to pursue closer cooperation with Israel on intelligence and security to quell what the Saudis fear is an Iranian plan to expand its presence from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria into the Arab Gulf, starting in Yemen.
In an interview with the US magazine the Atlantic on Monday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said his country and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had “many interests” with Israel in terms of intelligence and security cooperation and also the economy, but for these to be pursued there would need to be Palestinian-Israeli peace.
“The Arab capitals keep telling us that ‘there has to be peace.’ We say we want peace, but for peace to come there also has to be the acknowledgement of a minimum of Palestinian rights. We will see what happens at the summit, but I am not sure that Abbas will change his position. He feels it is too late in the day for him to sign just any deal and go down in history as the man who agreed to what most Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza or the diaspora would see as the final abandonment of the Palestinian cause,” the Palestinian source said.
He added that during his deliberations at the Arab Summit, Abbas would ask the Arab leaders to try to convince Trump to improve his plan. Otherwise, Abbas will have to bet on the fact that Netanyahu has “no real interest” in changing what for him is a convenient status quo, especially given Israel’s many internal issues, the source said.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly