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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces one of the greatest negotiating challenges of his political career on Wednesday when he meets President Trump at the White House: He must convince many skeptics in Washington that he is willing and able to sign the “ultimate deal” that President Trump seeks.
As the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) leader, Abbas has twice before been presented far-reaching peace proposals—once by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and a second time by President Obama at the White House in March 2014. In both instances, Abbas did not reject the offers. Nor did he say yes. Instead, he did not relate to them, thereby leaving the question lingering to this day for many outside observers as to whether the 82-year old president is too constrained to provide yes for an answer.
It is not that Abbas has failed to demonstrate political courage in his life-long career rising through the ranks of the PLO. He was among the vanguard of those Palestinians committed to non-violence in the nationalist struggle with Israel. Advocating peaceful reconciliation with Israel was politically risky and personally dangerous. He continues to boost security coordination with Israel, despite domestic pressure to abandon these efforts.
Yet since becoming the leader of the Fatah party, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) all at once, he has also projected an image of passivity and rigidity within negotiations with Israel. This is not to exonerate the role Israel plays on the other side of the table or others facilitating those talks. But it does raise questions about Palestinian limitations. Today, Abbas faces a paradox: The only way he can realize his avowed goal of ending the conflict and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital is through negotiations with Israel. Yet he is deeply constrained from negotiating concessions necessary to realize these goals.
A President Without Gaza
One source of constraint is structural-- his rule extends to only part of the territory previously controlled by the Palestinian Authority. He lost control over Gaza when Hamas fighters violently took over the coastal strip in 2007. Since then, Palestinians have lived with two rival leaderships: Abbas’ Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas’ Islamist rule in Gaza. Historically, Hamas has been the champion against a two-state solution and Abbas’ non-violence, negotiations, and security cooperation with Israel.
The assumption during negotiations since 2007 has been that a peace deal will attract Palestinians away from Hamas and its rejectionism once the Palestinian people are presented with the prospect of the benefits of an agreement. Yet the opposite has seemed to be far more likely: Hamas is poised like a sniper to shoot down any agreement or progress towards peace, labeling possible negotiating concessions Abbas makes as a betrayal of the Palestinian patrimony. When meeting President Trump on Wednesday, the Palestinian leader will have to explain how he can overcome Hamas’ spoiler role and help produce an agreement, despite the Gaza leadership’s opposition. Abbas will likely point to recent measures he has taken against Hamas in Gaza, such as cutting fuel subsidies and electricity payments, to demonstrate his willingness to challenge Hamas' leadership.
A Legitimacy Crisis
A second major constraint on Abbas’ ability to sign a peace agreement is his own flagging political standing. He is in the thirteenth year of a presidential term that was originally meant to be limited to four years with no sign of new elections anytime soon owing to the territorial split with Gaza. Abbas has also failed to appoint a deputy or successor for any of his top leadership roles as head of Fatah, head of the PLO, and head of the PA. Abbas recently sought to bolster his standing last November by holding a General Conference of his ruling Fatah party. While that move may have temporarily solidified his standing and set back rivals, Fatah is hardly popular. The last time Fatah and Hamas competed in parliamentary elections, Fatah candidates took a beating in what was seen mainly as a protest vote against them.
In the subsequent decade, Fatah has done little to reform or rejuvenate itself and thereby remove the sources of popular discontent. As Ghaith al-Omari, a former negotiator and advisor to Abbas, points out, the Palestinian leadership is facing a “severe legitimacy deficit” due to its failures to deliver political achievements and its “record of poor governance and corruption and its highly restrictive grip on political space.” Omari notes, “If these issues of legitimacy remain unaddressed, no leader can conclude peace—no matter what the terms of the deal may be.”
Challenged Within His Base
This lack of popularity and fledgling legitimacy has contributed to a third challenge now facing Abbas: an incipient leadership challenge within his own Fatah party. Just two weeks ago, Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader imprisoned by Israel on five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization, launched a hunger strike that is as much a challenge against Abbas as it is against Israel. Barghouti, often polled as the most popular Palestinian rival to Abbas, was one of those marginalized by Abbas last November. He kicked off this hunger strike of over a thousand Palestinians imprisoned in Israel with an op-ed in the New York Times portraying himself as an illegitimately-incarcerated Palestinian Nelson Mandela. As Abbas prepared for his upcoming meeting with President Trump, businesses and schools were shuttered throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem in solidarity with the prisoners. In flexing this political muscle from prison, Barghouti is not only challenging Abbas’ leadership, but further constraining the Palestinian president’s freedom to maneuver in Washington and in future dealings with the prisoners’ jailers: Israel.
A Decisive Moment
President Abbas meets on Wednesday a new U.S. president keenly interested in forging a comprehensive conflict-ending peace agreement, not in pursuing an open-ended peace process. Abbas must now convince President Trump on this visit that, despite the recent negotiating history and seemingly insurmountable Palestinian constraints, he can conclude the peace agreement Trump seeks. Moreover, he must decisively answer the question that looms large for many in Washington: Does Abbas seek a legacy as the man who ended the conflict with Israel and created a Palestinian state? Or does he seek to be the nationalist leader who stood tough resisting Israel and international pressure, albeit peacefully, and refused to concede one inch of Palestine’s historic rights?