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Can Abbas Use His White House Visit to Preserve His Power and Undercut Hamas?

Can Abbas Use His White House Visit to Preserve His Power and Undercut Hamas?

Grant Rumley
3rd May 2017 - World Politics Review

On Barack Obama’s first day in office as U.S. president in 2009, he called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank to discuss the war being waged at the time in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. The call came just two years after a devastating Palestinian civil war in which Hamas—the Islamist group that the United States, Israel and the European Union all designate as a terrorist organization—had expelled Abbas’ Fatah-led Palestinian Authority from Gaza. 

Back in 2009, in the midst of what the Israelis called Operation Cast Lead, Hamas was surging in popularity among Palestinians. For many in Ramallah, the phone call from the Oval Office was a welcome relief, “signaling to all concerned parties that the Palestinian people has one address and that’s President Abbas,” as one of Abbas’s advisers remarked. 

Eight years later, Abbas arrives in Washington in a similarly precarious position with one goal in mind: to re-establish his primacy. 

Abbas’ relevancy has never been more challenged. The Arab Spring protests of 2011 shifted international attention away from the Palestinians. Successive failed negotiations with Israel have diminished the view of Abbas as a partner for peace. Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 effectively halved his constituency. And in the West Bank, his Fatah party is riven with internal dissent and factionalization. A majority of Palestinians want him to resign. The most popular figure in his own party, Marwan Barghouti, is in an Israeli prison. After three years away from the White House, a high-profile summit with the American president is the boost of legitimacy Abbas desperately craves right now. 

Yet Abbas has not been a passive observer at home. In recent months, he has turned the screws on his rivals in Hamas and his challengers within Fatah. This consolidation of power has accelerated with Donald Trump in the White House, perhaps out of a desire to project strength to an American president who clearly responds to shows of force. 

In Gaza, the charade of Palestinian unity appears to be over. Since the 2006 legislative elections, when Hamas shocked the world in defeating Fatah, the two major Palestinian factions have played the game of reconciliation ad nauseam. Whether it was 2007 in Mecca, 2011 in Cairo, 2012 in Doha or 2014 in the Shati camp in Gaza, there has been no shortage of reconciliation “agreements” between the factions. If coexistence were possible, it surely would have happened by now. Instead, the two have an insurmountable bloody history rooted in fundamentally divergent views of society. 

More recently, this ideological gap has fueled an escalating series of tit-for-tat verbal attacks. In the past month, Abbas’ advisers have publicly called on Gazans to take to the streets and overthrow their Hamas leaders. Similar calls out of Ramallah have demanded that Hamas surrender its control of Gaza and subject itself to the West Bank leadership. In response, Hamas officials have accused Abbas’ Palestinian Authority of “dereliction” and instigating conflict

Abbas escalated his assault on Hamas last week by announcing that the Palestinian Authority would no longer subsidize Gaza’s electricity costs. One of the more absurd features of the Fatah-Hamas conflict is that, despite ousting the PA in 2007, Hamas does not foot the bill for Gaza’s electricity. Power has typically been provided by a combination of Egypt, a local plant and an Israeli facility. Recently, both the local plant and the Egyptian infrastructure have broken down, leaving just the Israeli plant. Most Gazans get by on just a few hours of electricity a day. Since Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel, the PA pays for the Israeli plant. Or at least it did until last week, when Abbas cut off the payments. 

Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has become a ticking time bomb. In January, thousands took to the streets in a rare protest against Hamas over the lack of electricity. A month later, Israel’s comptroller specifically pointed to the dire conditions in the enclave as one of many factors that led to the 50-day war in 2014. In cutting off payments for electricity, Abbas is betting that the inevitable public unrest will be directed against Hamas. But it’s a dangerous game of chicken where everyday Gazans are likely to suffer. 

Hamas responded to Abbas’ gambit Monday, unveiling a new political document that attempts to demonstrate some moderation on its longstanding issues. Specifically, the document acknowledges the 1967 borders with Israel as the basis for an independent Palestinian state and omits any reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egypt-based Islamist organization that Hamas grew out of. Yet these moves belie a more cynical ploy by Hamas: It is seeking to escape international isolation amid increased external pressure. 

This shift has two benefits for Hamas. In acknowledging the 1967 borders, the document can potentially undercut Palestinian support for Fatah, which has led Palestinian diplomacy with Israel. More practically, however, in apparently severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas hopes to appease Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has waged a merciless campaign against the Brotherhood at home—and against Hamas in Gaza. 

It’s no coincidence that Qatar, a longtime sponsor of Hamas, encouraged the group to release this new document in Doha, where Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been based since 2012. Hamas is increasingly constrained financially and isolated, and this is their shot at securing sources of revenue. The timing also hints at another element in the rivalry with Fatah. In releasing the document just hours before Abbas lands in Washington, Hamas hopes to undercut any momentum he might get from his first White House visit since 2014. 

Abbas arrives in Washington as the head of a house divided. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel are staging a hunger strike and, despite Abbas and the PA’s best efforts, thousands of members of his own party have taken to the streets to protest against Israel in support of the hunger strikers. While Abbas is strangling Gaza financially, his parallel efforts to project power in the West Bank have largely faltered. 

Abbas hoped to meet Trump for the first time having demonstrated dominance over his Palestinian rivals. Instead, his campaign against Hamas risks setting off another conflict in Gaza, while his ossified rule in the West Bank continues to alienate more and more Palestinians. 

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of “The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas.” Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.

Tags

abbas, fatah, hamas, obama, pa