There is no doubt that President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas is among those who felt relieved by the outcome of the US presidential elections. Under outgoing President Donald Trump the Palestinians had suffered diplomatic, political and economic losses beginning with his recognition of a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ending with the unveiling of his much touted peace plan for the Middle East. From the beginning Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner had opted for a non-conventional approach to resolving one of the most complex conflicts in modern history.
The end-game was to rearrange priorities in a bid to respond to new regional threats and one common enemy; in this case Iran. The Palestinians stood by as new geopolitical realities emerged; most notably in the form of normalisation agreements between Israel and a number of Arab countries. President Abbas had opted to turn his back to the new Middle East that was being formed. He missed opportunities to engage President Trump and present his case.
But it would be naive to believe that the election of Joe Biden as president would turn the clock back to the pre-Trump era. As much as Biden is committed to the two-state solution, he is unlikely to reverse Trump’s Jerusalem move. Moreover, his foreign policy team would welcome further normalisation deals between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries as the new normal. At 85 years of age, Abbas must respond to the geopolitical tide that has taken place by adapting to such evolving reality. Arab states with diplomatic and commercial ties to Israel can put real pressure on Israel to engage the Palestinians and halt its colonisation programme in the West Bank, thus keeping hopes for peace alive.
It has been more than 15 years since the Palestinians went to the polls to choose a president and lawmakers. Attempts to hold new elections were hampered by the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and the failure to end the inter-Palestinian rift since then. For the Palestinian leadership to regain credibility it must renew its mandate. Fresh elections would constitute a referendum on what the Palestinian people really want. It would send a message to the world that the Palestinians are able to deliver a new leadership that is pragmatic and able to adapt to new geopolitical reality.
While Abbas continues to cling to the archaic Oslo Accords, it is clear that over a quarter of a century and the shape of the West Bank has been altered, making it almost impossible to implement the classic two-state solution. Last September Abbas suggested that the UN Secretary General hold an international peace conference and hinted that the PA was ready for concessions. The Trump administration rebuffed that offer.
Under Biden that could change. But what a new Palestinian leadership needs is a bold initiative that would reflect the will of the Palestinian people. It would call Israel to respond and renew regional and international backing for the Palestinian cause. It would be bold enough to suggest alternatives to the now damaged two-state solution. It would point out that a bi-national or a single state is no longer excluded as possible options.
Hamas has proven that it is not interested in genuine reconciliation as much as Fatah continues to cling to power and is resisting reforms. Abbas must go back to the Palestinian people and allow them to have their say. The PLO, which has been sidelined for decades, presents an opportunity for all factions to unite and deliver a new leadership that reflects the will of the people following the holding of elections in the occupied territories.
Abbas had decades to deliver something beyond self-rule to the Palestinians. The time has come for him to move on and permit a new face of leadership to emerge. This could be his most crucial contribution to the Palestinian cause at this juncture.
While Israel is veering towards the far right, the Palestinians must come out with a bold initiative that would rally support for their cause. The reality is that heavy weight of responsibility falls on Israel’s shoulder to meet the Palestinians half way.
But in order to create such momentum, Abbas must oversee fair and open elections that would reflect democratic choices and renew the credibility of the Palestinian leadership. If Hamas wants to present itself as the opposition then it must do it from within the next legislature while delivering responsibility for running Gaza to a new and legitimate government.
The worst thing that Abbas can do is to wait for the Biden White House to revert to the pre-Trump era. That would be a strategic mistake and a great blunder. Only a new leadership with a fresh popular mandate can turn the table and put pressure on Israel to re-engage.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.