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Boxed in by US and Israel, an ailing Abbas takes defiant stance against Trump peace plan

Mahmoud Abbas blasts Trump’s plan for a Palestinian state at the UN
Mahmoud Abbas blasts Trump’s plan for a Palestinian state at the UN © Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/AFP

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 84 years old and in fragile health. Speaking Tuesday at the UN, he roundly rejected US President Donald Trump’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he appears to be powerless in the face of the united front presented by the US and Israel. 

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Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday reiterated the Palestinian people’s rejection of US President Donald Trump’s peace initiative in a speech at the UN Security Council.

But with Trump in the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now seeking re-election for a third time in one year, the Palestinians’ situation is as precarious as ever.

A day before he spoke at the UN, Abbas withdrew a request for a Security Council vote on a strong resolution rejecting the US peace plan outright and condemning it as a violation of international law. The resolution was unlikely to get the nine of 15 votes necessary to pass, and would have been vetoed by the US in any case.

In another blow to the Palestinians and Abbas, the US State Department on Monday released its 2021 budget request, which, for the first time since 1993 includes no aid at all for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Trump administration stopped providing economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in 2018, but until now maintained the security funding (which stood at $75 million this year). In the new budget request, that security aid now appears to be conditioned on Congress's approval of the $200 million Diplomatic Progress Fund, which is supposed to cover Trump’s peace plan.

“Until today, the US under Trump has taken such an antagonistic position against the Palestinians that left no room for any good expectations from this administration,” Elias Zananiri, vice chairman of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) Committee for Interaction with the Israeli Society, told FRANCE 24 in an e-mail.

“Moreover, the entirely one-sided stand the Trump Administration has taken has discredited the US from being a fair and impartial mediator in any peace efforts in the region. While financial support is needed, no one can suggest that it should be traded for political defeatism or succumbing to US diktats,” Zananiri said.

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When Trump and Netanyahu unveiled their plan on January 28, Abbas was furious.

“They called me from Washington and I did not pick up the phone,” Abbas was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post. “I said no and I will continue to say no... We are going for difficult days and we are beginning to bear the consequences of the refusal. Resistance must be escalated at all points of friction. All young people must be encouraged.”

But does Abbas have the power to stand up to the US and Israel?

Zananiri said Abbas has never enjoyed stronger support from the Palestinians and the Arab world, as well as “most countries that did not endorse Trump’s vision at all".

But the question remains of what will happen after Abbas is no longer in power: He is 84 years old and in fragile health, but there is no immediate plan to replace him or to call elections.

“My worries stem from the question of what may happen later in the near future as no Palestinian leader would ever accept tomorrow what President Abbas rejects,” Zananiri said.

Danny Rubinstein, a former journalist for the Israeli daily Haaretz and a long-time Arab affairs analyst, told FRANCE 24 that “the more fragile Abbas becomes, the more suspicious he is of his surroundings and his perceived rivals. He keeps appointing people and then removing them.”

The Palestinians have not held presidential elections since 2005, after the death of Yasser Arafat, when Abbas won nearly 64% of the vote. The last parliamentary elections, in 2006, led to a split between Fatah and its main rival, Hamas. The two groups have been in conflict ever since. In 2007, the leadership was divided, with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip and Fatah ruling the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah in the West Bank.

But Trump’s peace plan has managed to unite the Palestinians in their rejection of it: Though it allows for a demilitarised Palestinian state, the plan has been viewed by most Palestinians as greatly favouring Israel, and paving the way for Israeli annexation of large areas of the West Bank.

The day the plan was unveiled, Abbas met with the Palestinian leadership at his Ramallah headquarters. Zananiri says that during the meeting, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called to support Abbas’s rejection of the deal and to express the hope that the groups would soon be able to put their differences behind them.

 “President Abbas responded with readiness to dispatch a senior delegation to talk to Hamas and resume reconciliation talks, so that the split that has existed since Hamas took over Gaza Strip by military force back in June 2007 would come to an end. Currently, there are two senior Fatah officials, members of the Central Committee, who are in Gaza for discussions with various factions to set a date for the national dialogue session that both President Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh agreed on,” Zananiri said.

There was even hope that the Trump plan would get Hamas to agree to holding elections, Zananiri said. “It is about time for all of us to go back to the people and the voters to decide what shape of a political regime we want for the future.”

Several Fatah officials who are close to the Palestinian leader might vie to succeed Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. Rubinstein said these included “three or four from the security establishment, like Tawfik Tirawi, Majed Faraj, Mahmoud Aloul and Jibril Rajoub".

“But they fight among themselves and Abbas does nothing to stop this,” Rubinstein added.

Two other possible successors could be Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, an economist and long-time Abbas ally, or the influential businessman Mohammed Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza and one of Abbas’s fiercest opponents, who is currently living in exile in Dubai.

>> Exclusive interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh

Rubinstein cited Ghassan Khattib, a politician of the Palestinian People’s Party, who has been saying for the past two years that "there is no use talking about a successor to Abu Mazen", predicting: "Abu Mazen will be the last Palestinian president.”

“They say that after that there will be chaos, with factional fighting for power, but no president,” Rubinstein said.

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