In a Warning to Obama, Abbas Quits Election

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Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heads a meeting of Fatah's executive committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah

"It's time for you to find another donkey." With those words, according to Palestinian sources, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the Palestine Liberation Organziation (PLO) executive committee that he would not seek re-election in January. The 74-year-old leader, on whom U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East are heavily dependent, reiterated that message later on Thursday in a televised address from his home in Ramallah. "This decision does not at all amount to bargaining or political maneuvering. While I appreciate the views expressed by brothers [in the PLO, who rejected his move], I hope they will understand my wish."

The prime audience for Abbas' statement, of course, was not the PLO leadership but the Obama Administration. According to Palestinian sources who attended the meeting, Abbas told his PLO comrades that the U.S. had "cheated" him by retreating from its insistence that Israel end settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. "We welcomed it, and were optimistic when President Obama announced the need for a complete halt to settlements, including natural growth," Abbas said. "We were surprised by his support for the Israeli position." (The U.S. has backed Israel's argument that negotiations should resume despite the disagreement over the settlements. Last weekend U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew howls of protest across the region when she praised as "unprecedented" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's offer to only slow settlement activity, but not in Jerusalem.)

Abbas had been under pressure from the U.S. to open unconditional talks with the Israelis, but mindful of his deteriorating popularity at home, the leadership of his Fatah party had ruled out negotiations until Israel demonstrated its bona fides by halting settlement activity. Livid over what he sees as Obama backsliding, Abbas is drawing on the only leverage available to him by threatening to walk away.

The aging moderate's departure from the scene would certainly deal a body blow to the Administration's peace efforts because there's no obvious replacement who would represent continuity with his outlook. If Abbas were to resign, a strong contender for the Fatah nomination would be Marwan Barghouti, the movement's most popular leader, currently in an Israeli prison on a terrorism conviction (and who might be freed as part of a prisoner swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held captive by Hamas). Barghouti is far less inclined to compromise and accept U.S. tutelage than Abbas is. And all of the more moderate leaders closer to Abbas are politically far weaker than even the increasingly marginal PA President.

But despite his insistence that his move was no stunt, it's important to note that Abbas is not in fact threatening to leave the stage. "This is political theater," says Amman-based Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabani. "The Palestinian Central Election Committee is expected to conclude that the election Abbas called for in January can't be held, because Hamas won't allow them to go ahead in Gaza, and Israel won't allow them to go ahead in East Jerusalem ... So what he did today was announce that he won't be a candidate in an election he knows is not going to happen. It would be meaningful only if he announced his actual resignation from the positions he holds as head of the PA, Fatah and the PLO."

Abbas is deeply frustrated over how little help he's getting from the Americans and Israelis in making the case for negotiations to his people. Having been politically humiliated by years of fruitless open-ended talks at the Americans' behest, he has begun to say no to the U.S. pressure to return to the table, mindful of how much trouble he often finds himself in at home when following Washington's advice. His popularity has been in steep decline over the past month, after he initially bowed to U.S. pressure to shelve U.N. discussion of the Goldstone report into alleged war crimes in Gaza at the behest of the Administration — he later reversed himself following a firestorm of criticism from within Fatah and the wider Palestinian public.

The Israelis and Administration officials suggest that the settlement-freeze issue shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of negotiations. However, in the eyes of the Palestinians, the Obama Administration's retreat on the issue signals that the U.S. is not going to pressure Israel for concessions it has been adamantly unwilling to make. Without such U.S. pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership believes there's nothing to be gained from talking to the hawkish Netanyahu government. From the perspective of Fatah, the almost two decades spent relying on U.S.-led diplomacy to deliver Palestinian national goals has delivered precious little. As Israel's encroachment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has continued apace, Fatah's inability to reverse that situation via negotiations has played a major role in its eclipse by the more radical Hamas movement.

So even if Abbas' announcement was simply a shot across the bow of the Obama Administration, it carries within it a significant warning. The U.S. has operated as if the elements of a peace deal on the Palestinian side — with a pliant leadership that is politically dependent on the U.S. and an administrative and security apparatus that is ready to suppress the more radical elements seeking to confront Israel — would remain in place, passively waiting for a better day on the Israeli side. Now, however, Washington has moderated its demands on the Israelis, mindful that there's a line beyond which the Israeli government says it will not go. Abbas' statement on Thursday, stunt or not, is the most public warning thus far that the Palestinians have grown tired of waiting.

With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem