Analysis: Biden brings Abbas in from the cold

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

The Biden administration has taken the first steps towards restoring relations between the US and the Palestinian Authority, which were severed in 2017. The move came shortly after the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas (pictured), announced new elections – the first to be held in nearly 15 years.

What happened 

Joe Biden pledged on the campaign trail to “re-engage the Palestinians” as part of his support for a two-state solution. The president is now delivering on that promise:

  • Last week, the acting US ambassador to the UN, Richard Mills, told the Security Council that the administration would “restore credible engagement” with the PA, reopening Palestinian diplomatic missions closed by Donald Trump in 2018 and restoring US aid slashed by the former president at the same time. 
  • “We do not view these steps as a favour to the Palestinian leadership,” Mills argued. “US assistance benefits millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps to preserve a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis.” “At the same time, I must be clear, the US will maintain its steadfast support for Israel,” he added.
  • Mill also said the new US administration would “urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence, and providing compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism”.
  • On Monday, in what is believed to be the first public and official contact between the US and PA in several years, Hady Amr, US deputy assistant secretary for state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs, spoke by phone with Hussein Al-Sheikh, head of the General Authority of Civil Affairs. Al-Sheikh, a trusted aide of Abbas and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, heads up the PA’s coordination with Israel. Amr also spoke with the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, according to Palestinian media. 
  • “Bilateral relations were discussed, and the political situation and the latest current developments. It was a constructive conversation, and further communications were agreed upon”, al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter.

Gearing up

  • On 15 January, Abbas, who is in the 15th year of a four-year term, announced that elections will be held for the Palestinian parliament in May and the presidency in July (elections to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s governing body have also been scheduled for August). The president’s move was seen as a way of restoring his legitimacy in front of the international community in general and Biden, whose election the PA warmly welcomed in November, in particular.  
  • Abbas has previously promised new elections, but this is the first time that he has set a date. 
  • Shtayyeh told the Qatar-backed Al-Araby News last month that Abbas will be Fatah’s candidate for the presidency. 
  • However, other Palestinian officials appeared more reticent at the prospect of the 84-year-old president seeking re-election and stressed that the decision was one for Fatah’s Central Committee. “There has been no decision regarding [Fatah’s] presidential or legislative candidates,” committee member Abbas Zaki said

What the polls say

Opinion polls suggest that – should he choose to run – Abbas faces a potential uphill struggle to win re-election:

  • Just under two-thirds of Palestinians think Abbas should resign, according to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research.
  • Another poll conducted by the centre showed Abbas losing badly to the head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, in a two-horse race with the president on 39 percent of the vote and the terror chief on 52 percent. 
  • The president’s party fares slightly better in elections for the Palestinian parliament, which hasn’t met for more than a decade. Fatah polled 38 percent to 34 percent for Hamas. In the ill-fated elections of 2006, Hamas won 44 percent, against 41 percent for Fatah. The following year, Hamas staged a violent coup in Gaza leading to the split in the Palestinian territories which endures to this day. 

Banned and behind bars

Two other potential presidential candidates face considerable obstacles to running:

  • The most popular Palestinian politician, Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for terrorist murders carried out during the Second Intifada. 
  • Abbas is also determined to block his former ally, ex-Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan from running to succeed him. The two men had a bitter falling out a decade ago and Dahlan – who retains a base of support in Gaza – was forced into exile. Senior Palestinian officials have indicated that – because he was convicted in absentia by a Palestinian court on charges of corruption and sentenced to several years in prison – Dahlan cannot be a candidate.

Credit crunch

The PA desperately needs an infusion of US cash after Abbas last year stopped accepting transfers of tax revenue which Israel collects on behalf of Ramallah. The president’s move was in protest at Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-shelved plans to annex parts of the West Bank assigned to it by Trump’s “peace plan”. However, the boycott of the tax transfers – which Abbas abandoned in November – significantly weakened the PA’s already parlous financial state. The cash constitutes 60 percent of the PA budget, leaving many public service workers unpaid or receiving deep cuts in their salaries.

An electoral own-goal?

Despite Abbas’ desire to win favour with the Biden administration, some experts are unconvinced that the elections will go ahead – and, if they do, may be counterproductive in terms of relations with Washington:

  • “Current political dynamics raise serious doubt about whether the elections will actually be held,” warns Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former PA adviser. “The PA and Hamas have offered no guarantees that the conduct of voting would be free and fair or that the outcome would be respected.”
  • Moreover, he cautions, “an election that brings Hamas back inside or atop the PA system could jeopardise Abbas’s primary foreign policy objective: reestablishing relations with the United States”.

Cleaning house

But, as Biden’s pre-election statements made clear – and Mills’ swords to the Security Council underlined – the US is also looking for the PA to clean-up its act when it comes to encouraging incitement to violence and the policy of “pay for slay”:

  • On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to tackle the PA’s “support for incitement and violence” and vowed that any financial assistance to it will have to comply with the provisions 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. The president also singled out the PA’s controversial school curriculum, which is funded by the British government.
  • In 2017, it was revealed that the bill for payments to terrorist prisoners has exceeded $1bn over the previous four years. They are also estimated to take up roughly seven percent of the PA’s budget. 
  • Media reports in recent months have indicated that the PA may be preparing to reform “pay for slay”, basing stipends on prisoners’ financial need rather than the length of their sentence. By making greater payments for longer sentences, the current policy is said to incentivise the most heinous acts and rewards the perpetrators and their families. 
  • However, critics of the policy are sceptical that changes made by the PA will 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,” the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre wrote in a briefing in December when reports of a new policy first began to emerge.

What (doesn’t) happens next

Biden has his hands full with matters at home. In the Middle East, Iran – not the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – will be his biggest priority. “We realise that the Biden administration is facing an enormous number of challenges,” the PLO’s Ahmad Majdalani said last week after the US announcement. “Right now, our priority is simply to restore American-Palestinian relations, whether or not there’s a peace process.”