Abbas Has no Control and Only Bad Choices
One of the last times I saw Yasser Arafat was in March 2002. Barricaded in his darkened headquarters in Ramallah and surrounded by besieging Israelis, he looked every inch the armed struggler. Clad in his standard green military uniform, with a black automatic machine pistol sitting ominously on his conference table in a room lit only by candles, Arafat talked like a man who would not give up the gun. I am the only undefeated general in the Arab world, he said that day. Violence was always a tool to remind Israel of the costs of ignoring him and the Palestinian problem.
Mahmoud Abbas is not Arafat. He has willfully eschewed violence for most of his career, certainly since he replaced Arafat in 2004 and became president of the Palestinian Authority. Nor, frankly, does he have Arafat's street cred; he lacks the fighter's disposition needed to promote armed struggle.
And yet, not out of strength but out of weakness, Abbas may have no choice but to ride the latest wave of violence and terror shaking Israel and the Palestinian territories. Indeed, while the current unrest actually serves part of his agenda, it also threatens his authority, or what remains of it. Herein lies the curse of the Palestinian cause: Violence keeps Palestinians relevant, but it also keeps them far from statehood.
Not Israel's policeman: Although Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation remains in Abbas's interest, largely to demonstrate that the Palestinian Authority can maintain order in territory it controls, that cooperation is not free of cost. Unlike Arafat, Abbas cannot use Palestinian security forces as he wishes -- certainly not to protect Israelis, and still less to fire on or intimidate Palestinian protestors massing against Israel in the areas of the West Bank he controls. The longer the violence continues, the greater the chance is that Palestinian security forces will face impossible choices. They may be seen as Israeli collaborators, or forced to the sidelines, or emerge as active adversaries of Israel. In each scenario, Abbas's authority and credibility will suffer, particularly if he is seen as acting on Israel's behalf.
No control: It may be inconvenient for the Israelis to admit it, but in Jerusalem at least, the recent spate of knifing attacks is emanating from areas outside of Palestinian control -- areas that have been under Israel's sovereignty since 1967. Palestinian Authority institutions do not operate or carry influence in these areas. Indeed, the so-called Jerusalem Intifada is effectively leaderless, driven by young Palestinians, the majority of whom are too young to remember the pain of the Second Intifada and who consider Abbas either an abstraction or an 80-year-old leader out of touch with their needs and frustrations.
As for tensions over the Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount, area, the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction there either, and it exercises no control. That is why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent efforts to work out arrangements to reaffirm the status quo were negotiated with Israel and Jordan -- and not with Abbas's Palestinian Authority. Indeed, other than to condemn the violence and to avoid making the situation worse through inflammatory statements about shedding blood for martyrs, Abbas cannot and will not do much to pre-empt the violence. The inconvenient truth is that many Palestinians dismiss this kind of violence perpetrated with knives, rocks and vehicles -- it is seen as low-tech terror perpetrated by individuals, the result of the frustrations of a people under occupation, whereas most Israelis see it simply as terror. The point is that even the moderate Abbas -- while he believes that peaceful action is better suited than violence to improve relations with Israel and the United States -- will not expend a lot of political capital trying to prevent this kind of popular resistance. This is especially true with Hamas trying to capitalize on the violence and present itself as the Palestinans' key defender.
Abbas is stuck. He presides over a deeply divided Palestinian national movement and has brought the Palestinians no closer to ending Israel's occupation; has an Israeli partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who won't meet his needs on statehood through negotiations; and is following a strategy for international recognition that cannot succeed without U.S. and Israeli buy-in.
And he confronts the ultimate conundrum on using violence.
Abbas may benefit from violence because it creates some urgency for Israelis to focus on the stateless Palestinians. But paradoxically he loses out, because that same violence slows progress toward a two-state solution by sowing Israeli anger and hardening its determination not to give in. Abbas cannot endorse an uprising, he cannot control one, and he cannot completely walk away from popular struggle.
Without a credible political process, managing this dynamic will become increasingly difficult. As an aging Abbas nears the end of his era, a younger generation of alienated, aggrieved, and leaderless Palestinians will move well beyond the Oslo years and will ignore the cautionary lessons of the Second Intifada, which brought pain and suffering to Palestinians and Israelis alike. The result is likely to be a future of more blood and pain, and one perhaps with fewer time-outs.