Mahmoud Abbas is not known for coming up with catchy lines and he lacks the stature and charisma of the late Yasser Arafat. But the Palestinian president is now likely to be remembered for telling United States President Donald Trump — in effect — to make way. The Arabic yakhrab baytu means “May his house be destroyed”. He didn’t literally mean the White House or Trump Tower. It wider sense is unmissable. And Abbas came up with some memorable wordplay as well: The US president’s promised Middle East “deal of the century” was in fact the “slap of the century”. And, as he quipped on Sunday: “We will slap back.”
The anger was not lost in the translation: Arafat’s successor, as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is still reeling from Trump’s controversial decision to overturn decades of US policy and a broad international consensus, and recognise occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — without saying, let alone promising, anything about Palestinian rights, in the holy city or anywhere else.
Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, also appeared to confirm a stream of leaks and rumours that Trump has been trying to strong-arm the Palestinians into accepting Abu Dis, a nondescript suburb of occupied East Jerusalem, as their future capital — before threatening to cut funding to Palestinian refugees and to the Palestinian National Authority. The two-state solution to the conflict with Israel has had a long demise. But Abbas’s speech in Ramallah to the PLO central committee may one day come to be seen as its epitaph.
In the catalogue of errors, insults and mis-steps that have marked his presidency so far, Trump’s “policy” towards Israel and Palestine deserves top billing for the damage it has done, not only to US credibility internationally, but to the actual prospects for helping to end or even just manage the world’s most intractable conflict.
Abbas’s fury and frustration were unmistakable — as was the signal that he will now bow out himself, leaving uncertainty in his wake and not the remotest prospect for an end to more than half a century of occupation.
Israelis quickly condemned an “extremist” or “antisemitic” speech and focused on his description of Zionism as a colonialist movement by people who, he claimed, had no connection to the land they were settling. It was a bleak reminder of the irreconcilable narratives that lie at the heart of the conflict: Israelis and Zionists have always focused on their intentions in creating and maintaining a Jewish state; Palestinians on the results — and primarily the way they were displaced and oppressed by foreign intruders.
And that was all the more striking because Abbas has long been seen by Israelis and others as representing the pragmatic face of Palestinian nationalism: A leader who early on understood the need to know and talk to his enemy. He was also a keen supporter, with Arafat, of the Oslo agreement of 1993, when the PLO took the historic step of recognising Israel: That secured the recognition it craved as the representative of the Palestinians, but — crucially — failed to guarantee the creation of a Palestinian state.
Unlike Arafat, Abbas also sensibly opposed the second intifada that erupted in 2000, recognising that a return to armed struggle was not going to succeed against an infinitely more powerful foe.
Abbas was clear in his charge that it was Israel that had killed off Oslo, having long complained about its policy of building illegal colonies in the occupied territories, which — along with occupied Jerusalem and the refugee question — is one of the key issues that have bedevilled peace efforts over the years.
Yet, he conspicuously failed to spell out whether that conclusion would mean the dissolution of the PNA — as many Palestinians now demand — and an end to its security cooperation with Israel. Demands from PLO ranks that the organisation formally withdraw its recognition of Israel and campaign for a one-state solution are an ominous sign of what may be coming next — and play into the hands of the annexationists and colonists who dominate the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
If there is light in this darkness, it is that Abbas also repeatedly stressed his continuing commitment to a two-state solution, based on international law and the 1967 borders. That remains an enduring point of both principle and political realism — even in the topsy-turvy days of the Trump era. Yet, how it is to be achieved looks harder than ever before.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Ian Black, a former Guardian Middle East editor, is now a visiting senior fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre.