Mahmoud Abbas. Photo:, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Palestinian Authority appears to be engaged in a potentially significant repositioning exercise ahead of Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House. The moves by Ramallah are reviving hopes that, with a new administration in Washington committed to a two-state solution, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process might be revived.

In recent weeks, the PA has resumed civilian and security cooperation with Israel, sent its ambassadors back to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and is reported to be considering reforms to its highly controversial policy of paying salaries to convicted terrorists.

This weekend, Mahmoud Abbas began a trip to Jordan and Egypt; his first foreign visits since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced the ageing Palestinian president to sharply curtail his travel.

But the trip is also seen as part of an outreach effort by the PA in the run-up to Biden taking office in January.

The PA has warmly welcomed Biden’s election as a window of opportunity to reset relations between Ramallah and Washington and kick-start the peace process. There have been no significant talks between Israel and the PA since the end of former US secretary of state John Kerry’s 2013-14 efforts. While Israel indicated its willingness to accept Kerry’s “framework agreement” – a set of broad parameters for ending the conflict – Abbas never responded to it. The talks collapsed after the PA began negotiations with terror group Hamas aimed at restoring Palestinian unity.

After he spoke with King Abdullah of Jordan last week, Biden is expected to place a call to Abbas shortly. The president-elect told the Jordanese monarch he hoped to cooperate on “supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

The PA broke off relations with the US in December 2017 following Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The US president then proceeded to cut-off aid to the Palestinians, close the PLO’s office in Washington, and pursue a highly one-sided “ultimate deal” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump repeatedly expressed scepticism about a two-state solution – the mainstay of US policy for nearly three decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations. His peace plan unveiled in January envisaged the eventual creation of a Palestinian state in 70 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. Barely 10 years ago, in 2008, former prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on almost the entire territory of the West Bank with compensating land swaps for the 6.3 percent he wished to annex. Abbas has admitted that he rejected the proposal.

Following signs that Benjamin Netanyahu intended to take up the Trump plan’s proposal that Israel could annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including settlements and the strategically important Jordan Valley, the PA announced in June that it would cease civilian and security cooperation with Israel.

Netanyahu abandoned the annexation plans – in part due to opposition from his centrist Blue and White coalition partners – in the summer as part of agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalise their relations with the Jewish state. The PA reacted angrily to the Gulf states’ moves and recalled its ambassadors to both countries. However, after Biden’s victory, it was announced that Ramallah is sending its top diplomats back to the UAE and Bahrain.

Cooperation back on the cards

At the same moment, it was also announced that civil and security ties with Israel were to be restored.

As The Times of Israel detailed, the impact of their suspension had been felt most keenly by the Palestinians themselves: Gaza patients who needed urgent medical treatment in Israeli hospitals were unable to obtain permits to leave the coastal enclave; tens of thousands of Palestinian newborn children were unable to obtain official documentation from Israel, which did not receive information from the PA as to their existence; and PA police officers who would previously withdraw from areas when Israeli forces notified them of an upcoming operation ceased communications with the IDF.

The issue has also been key to the financial crisis experienced by the PA in recent months and exacerbated the effect of the fiscal and economic fallout from the pandemic. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Israel and the PA formed a customs union and Israel collects VAT, import duties and other taxes on the PA’s behalf, transferring the sums monthly. In all, the revenues comprise over 60 percent of Ramallah’s annual budget. But when it severed civil and security coordination, the PA also refused to accept the tax transfers, which come to roughly $150m per month. As a result of the resultant fiscal squeeze, Abbas slashed by up to 50 percent the salaries of public sector workers – who constitute 15-20 percent of the PA economy – meaning that many have not received full pay for nearly five months.

In October, the European Union told the PA it would refuse to provide any additional financial aid as long as Abbas continued to reject tax revenues collected by Israel. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, together with Jordan and Egypt, also pressured the president to resume civil and security ties with Israel and accept the tax transfers.

“We entered an enormous financial crisis, and those who bore it were ordinary Palestinian citizens,” Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA’s minister for civil affairs, acknowledged when the PA announced the restoration of ties with Israel last month.

Nonetheless, Abbas’ decision to restore cooperation has been fiercely attacked by the Iranian-backed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups. “We demand that the Palestinian Authority immediately retract this decision and cease betting on Biden and those like him. The land will not be freed, nor will rights be protected, nor the occupation dispelled – except by true national unity,” Hamas said. In a statement, the PIJ said: “This is a coup against all the attempts to promote national cooperation. This is an alliance with the enemy.”

In September, Abbas hosted a meeting in Ramallah which brought together all 14 major Palestinian factions – including Hamas and PIJ – for the first time in nearly a decade. That meeting, moreover, had reportedly paved the way for Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas to sign a cooperation agreement.

But some analysts believe that the Palestinian president was simply playing for time while awaiting the outcome of the US elections. If Biden were elected, they believed, Abbas would “pivot away from Hamas and attempt to mend fences with the United States instead”. That process now appears to be well underway. One consequence is that Abbas – who is in the 15th year of a five-year term – appears to be backing away from a commitment to the UN and EU to hold new elections, which he fears might be lost to Hamas. “Whether he was ever serious or not about holding these elections is still debatable,” Ghassan Khatib, a member of the Palestinian People’s party, and a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told the Financial Times this week.

Abbas’ decision to build bridges to the incoming administration looks like a wise one. Biden signalledduring the campaign that he intends to unequivocally support a two-state solution and adopt a more even-handed approach towards the conflict. He made clear his opposition to annexation and his desire to “re-engage the Palestinians”. He also pledged to “reverse the Trump Administration’s destructive cut-off of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and cancellation of assistance programs that support Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, economic development, and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza”.

However, Biden is also expected to deliver some tough messages to Abbas too. He’s previously said the Palestinian president has “not stepped up when given opportunities” and argued that the PA should “acknowledge, flat-out, Israel’s right to exist – period – as an independent Jewish state and guarantee the borders”.

Biden has also taken the PA to task for its “support for incitement and violence” and has said that any financial assistance to it will have to comply with the terms of the 2018 Taylor Force Act, including its requirement that the PA end its policy of paying salaries to imprisoned Palestinian terrorists and their families.

That message has reportedly been driven home to the PA by sympathetic Democrats who have said that the Palestinians need to ditch “pay for slay” if Biden is to begin reversing the Trump administration’s policies. The UN envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, and diplomats from Germany and Norway have also sought to persuade Ramallah to change tack.

An end to “pay for slay”?

On Sunday, Israel indicated its desire to put relations with Ramallah back on a more even keel with the security cabinet approving the transfer of $725m in tax revenues to the PA. However, the ministers also withheld $181m in line with a 2018 Israeli law which requires the government to hold back sums equivalent to that which the PA has paid to those convicted of terrorism offences serving time in Israeli prisons and the families of “martyrs” who have died or been injured attempting to carry out attacks.

The allowances involve significant sums of money and range from $364 a month for a term of up to three years in prison to $3,120 for a term of 30 years. Terrorists from Jerusalem receive a monthly $78 supplement, while Arab-Israeli terrorists receive a $130 supplement. By making greater payments for longer sentences, the policy is said to incentivise the most heinous acts and rewards the perpetrators and their families. In 2017, it was revealed that the bill for such payments has exceeded $1bn over the last four years. They are also estimated to take up roughly seven percent of the PA’s budget. Aside from Israel and the US, Australia and the Netherlands have attempted to impose financial penalties on the PA over the payments.

However, Abbas has resolutely defended “pay for slay” in the past and refused to change course, saying in July 2018: “Even if we have only a penny left, we will give it to the martyrs, the prisoners and their families”.

The PA is now reportedly considering reforms to its policy by which payments to prisoners’ families would be based on their financial need, not – as is currently the case – how long the sentence being served is.

“Economic need must serve as the basis,” Qadri Abu Bakr, chair of the PA’s Prisoners Affairs Commission, told the New York Times. “A single man should not be earning the same as someone with a family.”

However, Abu Bakr later rowed back from these remarks, suggesting that the PA is working to find a new formula for the payment of their stipends, but the issue of payment based on socioeconomic status has been rejected out of hand, since the issue of the prisoners is “a clear case of a national political struggle”. Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah Central Committee secretary-general, issued a similarly strong denial of the New York Times story.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, has added to the confusion giving a somewhat opaque response when he was questioned about the payments last month during an interview with the US Council on Foreign Relations. He vigorously defended them as social welfare payments to the families of those imprisoned – ensuring, he said, they were not left to become “victims to Hamas and the Iranians” – and a means of helping to prevent those released from reoffending. “We are not encouraging people to kill more Israelis,” the prime minister argued, before hinting that reforms might be possible. “If we are doing it wrong, advise us,” he suggested.

The reported plans have already come under fire from prisoners’ families and their representatives. “This is 100 percent unacceptable and shameful,” Qassam Barghouti, the son of Marwan Barghouti, who was convicted by Israel of five counts of murder and is serving multiple life sentences suggested to the Times. “The prisoners are not a social welfare issue,” he said. “People are paid more for spending longer periods of time in prison to recognise their sacrifices: The more time you spend behind bars, the greater your value to your society is.”

Israeli campaigners have expressed concern about another proposal the PA is said to be working on, which would see released prisoners employed in the PA’s civilian institutions and its security services. This would enable terrorists to continue receiving their salaries from the PA under the guise of “employment” in its institutions. This is not an entirely new approach: in the years after Oslo, Yasser Arafat had thousands of prisoners released by the Israelis employed in the offices of the nascent PA. Abu Bakr has suggested that Abbas has given his approval to this policy and questionnaires have been sent to former prisoners about their job preferences in the security or civilian sector. In his interview with the New York Times, Abu Bakr said that he wanted to end the manner in which released prisoners are paid “for doing nothing”. Israelis, however, are sceptical about the implications of such an approach. “It appears that the PA is going to integrate the released terrorists into positions in the PA security forces – the very same forces tasked with fighting terrorism,” Marcus Hirsh of Palestinian Media Watch, which monitors incitement, wrote in October.

Other Israelis have also adopted a sceptical response to the PA’s plans. “They finally understand that they have to do something,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired general in military intelligence who has researched and spoken out against the payments. “That’s a good thing. But we need to be watchful. I’m still suspicious.” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre is similarly doubtful that the PA reforms will turn out to be anything other than cosmetic. “Financial support for terrorist prisoners, released prisoners and families of shaheeds is firmly rooted in the Palestinian ethos and, in the ITIC’s assessment, the PA does not intend to make any substantial changes in this support,” it wrote in a briefing this week.

Nonetheless, after four bleak years under the Trump administration, the PA seems to be readying itself for a more sympathetic hearing from the White House. With polls indicating that Israelis want Biden to restart the peace process, new opportunities may yet arise