The Guardian / May 25, 2020
Mahmoud Abbas says all agreements with US and Israel are void but others call move a cry for help.
It was a speech intended to define a new era. In a final, do-or-die attempt to block what appeared to be Israeli plans for a permanent land grab, the Palestinian president announced he would renege on decades of diplomacy.
From the 1990s-era Oslo accords – the first steps of a peace process – to deep security coordination between the Palestinian leadership, Israel and US intelligence agencies, all were now void, Mahmoud Abbas said in a late-night speech last week. He said the Palestinian leadership was “absolved, as of today, of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments”.
Almost a week later, it appears Abbas may have been bluffing. He has made similar threats multiple times before and, apart from sightings of Palestinian security forces retreating from some areas they patrol in coordination with Israeli forces, there was little sign on the ground that life had changed.
“Obviously, the narrative out there, understandably, is that this is just a bluff,” said Tareq Baconi, an Israel-Palestine analyst for the International Crisis Group thinktank.
If Abbas had been serious, the ramifications would have been enormous and, probably, immediate. By nullifying those agreements, Abbas would destroy the structures that have held him in power for years, including his ruling Palestinian Authority (PA), itself a product of the Oslo accords.
“If the agreements don’t exist then the PA doesn’t exist. It’s unlikely that the leadership will dismantle itself,” said Baconi.
Israel and the PA work together so closely that often Palestinians are able to leave their towns for work or medical treatment only through close coordination. Even Abbas is unable to move around, both within the occupied territories or out of it, without Israeli permission.
So tight is the PA’s relationship with Israel that it has led to widespread accusations among Palestinians that the body has become proxy for the occupier, which in return props it up. “It’s seen as a way of maintaining self-governance rather than building a state,” said Baconi.
The secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Saeb Erekat, however, suggested that security and intelligence sharing was ending. Despite public antagonism, Israel, the US and the PA have long maintained security coordination against their mutual enemy, Hamas.
Although he would not divulge specific details of Abbas’s plan, Erekat said the leadership had already suspended contacts with the CIA and Israeli intelligence agencies.
“Security cooperation with the United States is no more. Security coordination with Israel is no more,” he said on a conference call with journalists. Cryptically, and suggesting the move was not comprehensive, he added: “We are going to maintain public order and the rule of law … We are not closing the door.”
A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some instructions had been given to PA security agencies not to coordinate with Israel. However, they said the full effects of the move would not be known until Eid festivities end on Wednesday.
Abbas’s speech was a response to Israel’s government officially contemplating annexing large areas of the West Bank, apparently with US backing. Palestinians claim that land for a future state. Although Israel already maintains a half-century-old occupation in the territories, annexation is seen as a deathblow to any Palestinian state.
The Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the UN security council last week that Abbas’s speech may not have been a bonafide threat but instead a “desperate cry for help” in the face of such a devastating blow.
“If I may speak openly and very frankly on the issue, whatever our individual assessments of the Palestinian reaction to the Israeli threat of annexation may be, it is certainly one thing – it is a desperate cry for help,” he said. “It is a call for immediate action. It is a cry for help from a generation of a leadership that has invested its life in building institutions and preparing for statehood for over a quarter of a century.
“It is doing so at a time in which a new, younger generation comes forward, with its own aspirations for the future. Many feel betrayed and increasingly cynical.”
Oliver Holmes is the Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian