Is Abbas crying wolf?

It’s the talk of the hour. After President Mahoud Abbas’ November 5 announcement that he would not run in any upcoming Palestinian elections, political pundits have been scrabbling to make sense of what wheels are turning in the President’s head.

To the public, Abbas has put the blame for his decision squarely on Israel and the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to comply with Palestinian, American and international demands to freeze settlement activity began the downward spiral, which culminated in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent praise of Netanyahu’s efforts towards a settlement freeze as "unprecedented." Since then, Abbas has called it quits, saying he will not retract his decision. Only time will tell if this proves true.

The "why" of the matter is pretty obvious. President Abbas is probably in the weakest position he has ever been since taking office. Not only is the peace process grotesquely off track but his people are terribly fragmented and his own credibility shot, particularly after the whole Goldstone Report debacle. To put it bluntly, Abbas has failed to deliver and he knows it.

So, announcing his resignation –” at least as a future presidential candidate –” seems to be the logical next step. That is, if it is an authentic gesture and not just a tactic. If he sticks to his word, this would pose a number of possible scenarios. For one, Abbas’ resignation is not in the interest of Israel or the United States, both of whom understand that he is probably their best shot at a "peace partner". Historically, Abbas has represented the moderate camp, even within Fateh and has steered clear of considering any armed approaches to the problem. The Americans like him, even if lately they would rather him relinquish his insistence that settlements be frozen before negotiations are launched. Still, he is the only partner available now and even though Israel continues to say it has "no partner for peace" the Americans know better. With Abbas off the radar, there is no telling who will take his place. According to Palestinian law, the Speaker of the House steps up as acting President should the latter resign suddenly. In this case, the Speaker is Hamas member Aziz Dweik.

Even Israel understands that the situation may spiral out of control once Abbas is out of the picture. In the absence of a national reconciliation agreement, Hamas and Fateh remain at loggerheads regarding leadership legitimacy. With Fateh drastically weakened by Abbas’ resignation and perhaps his cabinet along with him, Hamas will certainly jump at the opportunity, especially, if the situation remains in limbo in terms of holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza at the beginning of next year.

This could be why Shaul Mofaz suddenly decided to give his two-cents worth on the subject of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The former Israeli army chief of staff and Kadima Knesset member said on November 8 that if Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions, Israel would negotiate with it on the basis of establishing a Palestinian state on 60 percent of the West Bank.

Anyone who knows anything about the conflict will also know this is no groundbreaking news. Other than the fact that Mofaz explicitly named Hamas as a potential negotiating partner (contingent on hackneyed international conditions), the rest has been said already, including by Netanyahu. Still, Mofaz’ declaration should also be seen in the context of a possible Abbas drop-out, which Israel would consider dangerous to the already shaky stability in the region. It could also be viewed in lieu of the possible scenarios if a solution based on two states is not found in the near future, namely the threat to Israel’s Jewish character should the two-state solution no longer be an option.

So, if Abbas is serious about his decision to resign, this could lead to what many have been demanding for a long time –” a dissolution of the Palestinian Authority whereby the conflict is thrown back into the lap of the international community. The PA, which was originally created as a transitional authority under the Oslo Accords to eventually be replaced by the government of a sovereign Palestine, has lost its original mandate given that 1999 –” the year the state of Palestine was supposed to be established –” was a decade ago. Since then, it has been accused of being a buffer between Israel and the Palestinian people, often being accused by the masses as doing Israel’s "dirty work." Given Abbas’ obvious frustration in failing to realize the goal for which the PA was formed, and what the Palestinians see as the US’s capitulation to Israel, this is not such an outrageous option. Besides, the idea of the Palestinians’ unilaterally declaring a state on the 1967 borders in the UN has been floating around in media and diplomatic circles. If the PA is made obsolete, this would put increasing pressure on the international community to reach a final settlement.

On the other hand, Abbas could just be crying wolf. In this case, his theatrics could still pay off if he holds out long enough. Declaring his surrender could simply be a tactic to pressure all parties involved; the Americans might try using a stiffer hand with Israel over their settlement policies and the Israelis may opt for being more malleable, not because they want to but because it is better than the option of not having Abbas around.

The problem with moves like these is that if Abbas doesn’t go through with his decision, he will lose even more credibility among his people, especially, if his resignation does not yield the results he had hoped for. If the US actually does increase pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction, at least the President would have a significant victory to fall back on when he retracts his decision. If not, if time reveals that Abbas took a gamble and lost, not only would he have gained nothing, he would have lost whatever little he had.