Abbas is America’s man

Dana al-Kurd

Jewish Currents  /  September 14, 2023

American condemnations of the PA president’s antisemitism gloss over the US’s role in propping up his authoritarian rule. 

On September 6th, the Israel-advocacy group Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) began circulating a newly-subtitled video in which Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was seen repeating antisemitic tropes about the causes of the Holocaust. In the video, taken at a meeting of Abbas’s Fatah party in August, the president falsely claimed that the Nazis targeted Jews for eradication because of their involvement in “usury.” “They say that Hitler killed the Jews for being Jews, and that Europe hated the Jews because they were Jews. No. It was … because of their social role and not their religion,” Abbas said. The comments drew immediate international outcry: the European Union called them “inflammatory” and “deeply offensive,” while Deborah Lipstadt, the United States’ special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, demanded that Abbas apologize for his “hateful” remarks. Lipstadt’s rebuke was echoed by other US officials, including US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain.

Certain critics were quick to cast Abbas’s comments as a stand-in for the views of Palestinians as a whole. “This is the true face of Palestinian ‘leadership’,” the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, posted on social media, implying that similar antisemitism was also motivating Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Ritchie Torres, a US congressional Democrat representing the Bronx, similarly tweeted that Abbas’s comments were the “moderate” position in a Palestinian political landscape suffused with antisemitism. Yet such efforts to treat Abbas as a true representative of Palestinians conceal a basic truth: Abbas is America’s man. The reason he remains in his position, over a decade beyond his democratic mandate, is entirely due to US intervention, which has propped up Abbas as the leader of an increasingly authoritarian PA.

Abbas rose to international prominence in the early 2000s at the start of the Second Intifada. At the time, the George W. Bush administration, working alongside the Israeli government, was eager to sideline the previous Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, who had recently refused to accept a deal that would require Palestinians to give up refugees’ right of return and cede sovereignty in East Jerusalem. Frustrated with Arafat’s refusal, and believing that he had also not done enough to rein in Palestinian armed resistance during the Second Intifada, Israel and the US turned to Abbas, a founding member of Fatah and senior PLO official known for his willingness to cooperate in the peace process. In 1995, Abbas had negotiated and delivered a draft of a permanent status agreement which retreated on major Palestinian demands such as the right of return and, though it was never implemented, such readiness to concede recommended Abbas to the US. In 2002, when the Israeli military trapped Arafat in Ramallah, the Bush administration did not intervene and instead announced that they would no longer work with Arafat. Abbas became the US’s preferred Palestinian front man, and the following year the US pressured Arafat to install Abbas as prime minister. In mid-2003, Abbas met with Bush as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a move that signaled his growing power. Following Arafat’s death in 2004, Abbas immediately became the Fatah presidential nominee, and in 2005 he won a presidential election in which he faced no serious challengers.

As soon as Abbas came to office in the presidential election, the US demanded that the PA hold full parliamentary elections because Bush was eager to be seen “promoting democracy” in the Middle East. But it was clear that the US wanted Abbas’s Fatah to win the election, with Bush even allocating aid funds for Fatah to bolster its image. US allies, particularly the British government, also pitched in to help the Fatah-led PA crack down on what they called “rejectionists”: groups that rejected the status quo of the peace process, including the Islamist party Hamas. Despite these measures, Fatah officials warned the US that there was serious discontent among the Palestinian people, and that victory for Abbas’s party could not be guaranteed. Nevertheless, the Bush administration insisted on the election, and under the watch of international observers, Palestinians went to the polls in 2006. To the US’s unwarranted surprise, Fatah lost. Instead, Hamas won a plurality in the legislature, and began preparations for taking office.

But the US, which classified Hamas as a terrorist organization, couldn’t abide this outcome in the election it had insisted on, and quickly set about overturning the results. First, the Bush administration rejected the election’s outcome, saying it would not deal with Hamas as a political party given its refusal to renounce armed strategies. Then, it imposed sanctions on the Palestinians and suspended international aid. Israel joined in, refusing the PA access to its tax revenue until the election was reversed in a move that left thousands of PA employees without salaries. When fighting eventually broke out between Hamas and Fatah forces, the Bush administration encouraged Abbas to expand his presidential guard, which was a separate security force outside the PA’s National Security Forces that reported directly to him. In spite of the ongoing sanctions, the US even sent funds to arm this force. With the US’s ongoing support, Fatah was able to push Hamas officials out of the West Bank, which soon came under Abbas’s control. (Hamas consolidated power in Gaza instead—exiling Fatah members from government there—but Israel responded by quickly escalating its blockade of the territory. Since 2007, both territories have been governed independently, and periodic talks to form a “unity government” have so far yielded no result.)

The US’s actions after the election sent a clear message to Palestinians: The “international community” would be swift to punish any attempt to hold their chosen Palestinian leaders accountable. Palestinians would not be allowed to cast a vote to remove Abbas’s party from office, or to demand a different approach to the peace process. After reestablishing the West Bank under Fatah’s rule, the US began to rebuild the PA’s security apparatus to ensure the Authority would embrace its role as a steadfast partner of Israeli security forces, never again losing control as they had during the Second Intifada. Under direction from the US security coordinator, the PA’s security forces ballooned in size and changed in orientation. The US trained PA security officials with materials that made no mention of Palestinian national aspirations, focusing on maintaining order instead. PA security officials also began to sideline members who spoke of Palestinian “liberation,” forcing a number of senior bureaucrats into early retirement.

Commentators often justify the US’s decision to intervene in favor of Abbas by pushing a narrative that Palestinian politics is a binary of a collaborationist Fatah versus an extremist Hamas, implying that US intervention is necessary to stop extremist elements from gaining control in Palestine. The reality, however, is that US support of Fatah has created such a binary by allowing Abbas to prevent leftist and progressive alternatives from emerging. The PA accomplished this by aggressively co-opting grassroots organizations and centralizing control over their activity. The Authority also employed a divide and conquer strategy under which it allowed certain leftist organizations access to PA meetings while excluding others, thus causing tension within the Palestinian left.

At every stage, US support paved the way for the PA’s enduring undemocratic control over the West Bank. Between 2015 and 2017, some of the security officials I spoke with during the course of my scholarly research candidly attributed the PA’s rising authoritarianism to US influence, with one PA official telling me that “the Americans have taught us there is a difference between democracy and making trouble.” PA security officials absorbed not just US funding but also an American lesson: Democracy would only be respected if it led to a US-approved outcome.

It has now been 17 years since the US and its allies first enabled Abbas to cling to power against the will of the Palestinian people. Since then, Palestinians in the territories have become a captive population—to the Israeli army and increasingly violent settlers, but also to their own leadership, which faithfully serves Israel’s security goals. Palestinian analysts have identified a “revolving door” dynamic, in which “Palestinian activists, resistance fighters, and members of opposition are imprisoned by either Israeli or Palestinian authorities and then indirectly handed over to the other once released.” In the process of coordinating with Israel, the PA represses the Palestinian public with increasingly draconian cybercrime laws, surveillance, and arrests, cracking down on political dissent and engaging in human rights violations. In 2021, for example, the PA faced protests after its forces killed the dissident Nizar Banat, and drew additional outrage when plainclothes officers assaulted women who participated in those protests.

But none of these actions have led the US—across successive administrations—to reconsider its support of Abbas, despite increasing Palestinian resistance to his rule and repeated American condemnations of his antisemitic remarks. Back in 2018, Abbas made similar comments trivializing the Holocaust and received similar censure from US officials. But this censure did not translate into the US coming out in support of the 2021 Palestinian elections, which Palestinian civil society groups demanded. Instead, the Biden administration stayed silent as Abbas canceled the election, sending a clear signal that having a government accountable to Palestinian society was less important to the US than maintaining the status quo. The most recent round of US complaints about Abbas’s antisemitic views is unlikely to change this calculus. Indeed, just this week—mere days after Abbas’s remarks were roundly condemned by US officials—The Jerusalem Post reported that the US, with Israel’s approval, had helped furnish the PA with armored vehicles to aid its security operations in the West Bank. As many Palestinian activists and scholars have made clear, Abbas’s political purpose is not to represent us, but instead to provide a Palestinian rubber stamp on “peace” agreements or normalization deals that give away our rights. So if Abbas stands for anything, it’s not the aspirations of the Palestinian people—it’s the machinations of the US.

Dana al-Kurd is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond; she is the author of the book Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2020