The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind the fiery rhetoric, the Palestinian leadership is cornered and flailing

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, center, speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 14. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — It was 48 hours of bitter, fighting talk from Palestinian leaders as they scrambled to formulate a response to President Trump's Jerusalem decision and a nascent peace plan they said is biased in Israel's favor.

But analysts and political observers say the talk will likely remain just that: talk. 

During a two-hour speech on Sunday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hurled insults at the Trump administration and gave the impression of a leader with little to lose. He made comments that were immediately denounced by Israeli commentators as anti-Semitic, and he offered little in the way of new ideas or strategy. 

A day later, the Palestinian Central Council recommended a raft of measures that included reversing Palestinian recognition of Israel, ending security cooperation with it, and making a new international push for Palestinian recognition and Israeli accountability.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Dec. 13 that President Trump’s Jerusalem call proved the U.S. should no longer play a role in Middle East peace talks. (Video: Reuters)

However, Abbas's Palestinian Authority relies for its survival on his relationship with Israel, analysts say, making any bolder measures unlikely. Past threats to end security cooperation have not been carried out. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have little to show for past efforts to promote their cause internationally.

That leaves them flailing as the Trump administration accuses them of turning their back on negotiations, while Israel becomes increasingly emboldened by U.S. support and its acquiescence to Israeli settlement construction in occupied territory. 

"The sun and moon and stars are more aligned against the Palestinians than at any point I can recall," said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center and a former State Department negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations. "He's stuck," he said of Abbas. "He's cornered from every conceivable angle." 

While international efforts are unlikely to bear fruit, negotiations with the Trump administration are not an option if Abbas is to survive politically, and a return to violence would be a "disaster," Miller said. 

The Palestinian cause has slipped down the agenda for Arab countries. Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, are more concerned about strategic threats, such as Iran, and are finding their business and security interests increasingly aligned with those of Israel.

President Trump, in the meantime, is carrying through on his threat to cut aid to the Palestinians, a State Department official confirmed. The United States informed the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in a letter that Washington will pay only $60 million of a planned $125 million installment to the agency, which is charged with humanitarian relief for Palestinian refugees. The balance will be "held for future consideration," the letter said.

Palestinian leader attacks Trump, calling his peace deal the ‘slap of the century’

Abbas has tied his legacy to achieving a two-state solution through negotiations, calling for Palestinians to walk away from armed conflict against Israel. But he said Trump's "deal of the century" had turned out to be a "slap of the century," reporting that the Palestinians were offered Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem, as an alternative capital to Jerusalem itself. That falls far short of their demand for a return to pre-1967 borders, which would give them control of East Jerusalem. 

"It seems Trump's Jerusalem recognition provided Abbas with what he needed, both in Palestinian public opinion and internationally, in order to deflect the U.S. initiative to give birth to a highly constricted Palestinian state, territorially and functionally, without a capital in Jerusalem," said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. 

The Palestinian Central Council's recommendations, including ending security cooperation and reversing the recognition of Israel, are binding, according to Palestinian officials, although there is no time frame specified. 

Palestinians vote to suspend recognition of Israel, security cooperation

Abbas "will find a creative way to put it aside," said Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and previously the deputy director general of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs. 

The Palestinian Authority relies on Israeli security cooperation, while Palestinians depend on the Israeli economy, with tens of thousands working in Israel. "If they really want to implement the decisions that were made in the council, they are taking a risk, because Israel will respond to such an act," Michael said. 

There is skepticism that Abbas is willing to take such risks, although the situation he faces is unprecedented and makes actions of the 82-year-old leader harder to predict.  

"He's trying to appear defiant but being cautious," said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser for the Palestinian negotiating team and spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. "I think he's hoping for something from Europe, but anyone that follows European politics knows that to get that many countries to agree on a policy is difficult if not impossible."

Abbas is set to meet foreign ministers of the 28-member European Union in Brussels later this month. 

"It creates noise and motion but generally achieves very little," Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said of Palestinian efforts to internationalize the conflict. "Israel has a wider network of friends internationally, and many, even Arab nations, aren't willing to have this fight for them." 

In the end, Sunday's speech was "noises and threats," he said, adding that it was delivered in a "coarse and outrageous way." Abbas's comments that Israel was a European colonial project unrelated to Judaism are inconsistent with accepting a two-state deal, Shapiro said. The speech "will deepen the sense on both sides that there is no near-term prospect for diplomacy," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said the speech had exposed Abbas's true colors. "I think this serves our political goals more than anything else," he said. 

Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said Abbas's contentious comments were a distraction. But Khatib said he hopes there will be greater international urgency in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now that it is clear that the peace process has broken down and that the United States cannot be its sponsor.

"Either that is possible, or even if we have a period of vacuum, with no process, that would be less harmful than an American process, given the taste of it we've had," he said.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Carol Morello in Vancouver contributed to this report. 

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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