Palestinian leaders are banking on Biden win next week

Ramallah, West Bank Published: Oct 29, 2020, 06:31 PM(IST)

Democratic US presidential nominee Joe Biden holds up his face mask while speaking during a campaign stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Photograph:( Reuters )

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An end to the Trump administration would give the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, a face-saving chance to reverse a self-inflicted economic hardship that has been punishing his people for months

The Palestinians are counting on a Trump defeat on Tuesday. They don’t even want to think about Plan B.

An end to the Trump administration would give the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, a face-saving chance to reverse a self-inflicted economic hardship that has been punishing his people for months.

Fearing Israeli annexation of West Bank land the Palestinians have counted on for a future state, Abbas, in a bitter protest, stopped accepting transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes that Israel collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf. That forced painful salary cuts for tens of thousands of civil servants.

But former Vice President Joe Biden has made clear that he opposes Israeli annexation of land Palestinians want for a future state, and Israel has said it would not proceed without U.S. support. So a Biden victory would provide Abbas with “a ladder to climb down from the tree,” said Jehad Harb, a Palestinian political analyst in Ramallah. He could declare annexation dead and go back to accepting the tax transfers.

Isolated diplomatically and running out of money, plagued by old internal ideological divisions and by new threats like the coronavirus, the Palestinians are looking to Tuesday’s election more desperate than ever for a change in Washington. At the same time, senior members of Abbas’ Fatah party are increasingly looking ahead to his eventual exit from the stage and positioning themselves to try to succeed him.

Above all, Abbas, 84, and his lieutenants are counting on a President Biden to shelve the Trump administration’s lopsidedly pro-Israel plan for resolving the conflict. They are expecting a return to U.S. support for a two-state solution that Palestinians would consider viable. They are hoping for a thaw with the White House and wishing for the reinstatement of at least some financial aid.

Rolling back other moves by Trump, however, would be more complicated, like reopening a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington. And Biden has already ruled out undoing Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Should Trump win a second term, the Palestinians see no good options.

In a second term, Trump administration officials have vowed to press to make their Mideast plan, which contemplates Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank, a basis for resolving the decades-old conflict.

And they have promised to complete more normalization deals for Israel with Arab countries like those with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, which shredded the decades-old Arab solidarity that had underpinned the Palestinian national strategy: No recognition of Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state.

But if Abbas is anxiously waiting to see whether Trump leaves office, nearly everyone around him is looking ahead to the day after Abbas makes his own exit. Senior members of his party are throwing elbows at one another while courting publicity for their own efforts at diplomacy, technocratic governance or popular protest.

“The ship is sinking, and everyone is fighting over the first-class cabin,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas.

People around Abbas say he has even become fearful that the United States, Israel and their newly emboldened allies in the Arab world might plot to engineer his replacement — a concern rekindled by a recent interview with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi spy chief and diplomat, on Saudi state television.

“With those people,” Bandar said, referring to the Palestinian leadership, “it’s hard to trust them or to think you can do something to serve Palestine in their presence.”

Ultimately, many analysts say, Abbas may have to eat crow and reengage the Trump administration, ideally with some sort of face-saving diplomatic cover like the intervention of a multilateral institution.

For now, though, he has tried to create at least the appearance of other options.

Suddenly something of an outcast among his traditional Arab allies in Egypt and the Gulf, he sought to send them a message — albeit one that few have accepted at face value — by flirting with Turkey and Qatar, bitter regional and ideological rivals of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Abbas revived the idea of reconciling with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip. And he promised to call new elections in both the West Bank and Gaza as a way to reunify the Palestinians, renew his legitimacy and hamper any effort to oust him.

But few see these as serious options. Abbas is deeply mistrustful of Hamas, which is allied with Turkey and Qatar, and fearful that it could win control of the West Bank in new elections.

“Hot air,” said Mouin Rabbani, an expert on Palestinian politics, describing what he thought the end result of Abbas’ unity and elections bid would be.

Difficult as it may be to believe now, Abbas was quite optimistic about the Trump administration in its first few months, when the new president surprised many in the region by expressing interest in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

But those hopes were quickly dashed, and the administration’s treatment of the Palestinians became a growing nightmare of aid cuts, affronts and insults.

Upending long-standing U.S. positions on Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, settlements and other highly contentious aspects of the conflict, the administration seemed to go out of its way to take Israel’s side and undercut the Palestinians — infuriating Abbas, weakening his authority and isolating him diplomatically.

But even if Biden is elected, it will be difficult to undo much of what Trump has done.

Allowing the reopening of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington or restoring much of the aid to projects that directly benefited the Palestinian Authority would require Biden to overcome a number of legal obstacles, some of which might require congressional approval.

And reestablishing the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which until 2019 functioned as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, would require Israel’s permission — something it may not be too quick to grant in a city that Trump himself formally recognized as Israel’s capital.

“These are all possible, but they would require heavy political lifting,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and an expert on the role of Congress in the region.

What Abbas may wish for most — that Biden would prioritize the Palestinian cause, pressure Israel to make concessions and even move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem — seems highly unlikely at best.

Biden has made clear he has many higher priorities, beginning with the coronavirus pandemic. He has signaled that he does not want to clash with the Israeli government.

“The idea that everything will go back to the way it was before is somewhat of a fairy tale,” Rabbani said.

None of Abbas’ would-be successors are articulating a bold change in strategy either. But such ideas do exist outside of the Palestinian leadership.

Some Palestinians support renewed efforts to revive negotiations with Israel. Others want the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, forcing Israel to take responsibility for their lives and absorb the heavy financial and societal costs of a full-blown, direct military occupation, even in densely populated West Bank cities where Palestinians now generally govern themselves.

And fully 26% of Palestinians in the West Bank, according to a new poll, favor a return to an armed struggle against Israel.

A smaller but growing number of activists have tried to build interest in a peaceful protest movement.

Still, with Israeli politics moving rightward, many on the West Bank see little reason for optimism.

Khalil al-Arda, 52, a member of the municipal council in the village of Arraba, near Jenin, said he feared the status quo would never improve.

“I feel like we’re in a very dark tunnel with no light at the end,” he said.

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