In the aftermath of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was one of the first world leaders to criticize and condemn the move. Then, Abbas went further. His office announced there would be no meetings with Vice President Mike Pence on his visit to the Middle East.
Shortly thereafter, at a meeting of Islamic leaders in Turkey, Abbas called Trump’s decision a “crime” and ruled out a U.S. role in peacemaking with Israel. He said the United Nations should take over as mediator, since the Palestinians no longer considered the United States an honest broker. The epilogue of that move came on Monday, when a majority of the U.N. Security Council voted to annul Trump’s announcement. The measure failed only because of the United States’ veto. Also on Monday, Pence postponed his trip.
Abbas could have chosen another path. He didn’t have to read Trump’s announcement as a declaration that shut the door on Palestinian national hopes on Jerusalem. Instead, he could have interpreted it as leaving the final status of the city’s several sectors open and subject to negotiations.
“We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” Trump said. “Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
Abbas could have accepted the invitation to talk. He could have acknowledged the White House statement and countered with declaring East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did. (We wouldn’t have been pleased by that move, but at least it would have staked out a starting position for negotiations.)
Instead, Abbas sought the time-worn path of nullification, not only of Trump’s announcement, but also by extension of any Jewish and Israeli right to Jerusalem. We’re not surprised by his intransigence, but we are saddened. Whatever one may say about President Trump’s timing or diplomatic grace, no one — not even J Street — is viewing Abbas’ latest move as helpful to the Palestinian people.
Perhaps there was something else that was distracting Abbas from looking at the long game. Like many politicians, Abbas may have been driven by his own polls. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that more than 90 percent of Palestinians reject Trump’s announcement. It also found that 70 percent of those polled want Abbas to step down.
In choosing to save his own hide over engaging in a substantive conversation on the contours of a peace deal to be brokered by the White House, it is clear that Abbas is either unable or unwilling to lead negotiations with Israel. That leaves the Palestinians’ neighboring Arab nations — particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — to step in and pressure Abbas to resume a peacemaking function. No one can negotiate for the Palestinians. They need to negotiate for themselves. But, in order to do so, there must be a Palestinian negotiator.