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Here’s What To Make Of Palestinian Leader’s Threat To Abandon The Peace Agreement With Israel

Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 at U.N. Headquarters. CREDIT: AP/MARY ALTAFFER
Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 at U.N. Headquarters. CREDIT: AP/MARY ALTAFFER

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to abandon the peace agreements that formally outline terms for the relationship between his government and the Israeli state.

“[W]e will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them,” Abbas said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

“I am prepared to immediately, immediately resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions whatsoever,” Benjamin Netanyahu said in his own speech to the U.N. on Thursday.

He addressed the Palestinian leader directly when he added, “President Abbas, I know it’s not easy. I know it’s hard, but we owe it to our peoples to try. To continue to try. [I]f we actually sit down and try to resolve this conflict between us…we can do remarkable things for our people.”

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Although taken as something of an olive branch, the relationship between the two is a strained one, having only worsened when Netanyahu rejected any considerations for a two-state solution as a campaign promise earlier this year. His accommodating tone was also notably different from a statement made by his office which said Abbas’ speech as “was deceitful and encourages incitement and lawlessness in the Middle East.”

Abbas’ rested his rejection of the peace agreements from the early 1990s known as the Oslo Accords on claims that Israel has not held up its end of the bargain.

Abbas noted the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and encroachment of military incursions into Palestinian-controlled land in the West Bank as a violation of the Oslo Accords. He also said that Israel has not taken steps toward establishing lasting peace or to allow Palestinian economy to develop as reasons to abandon the agreements.

The issue is not so clear cut, however, since the Palestinian Authority was itself established by the Oslo Accords. If Abbas walks away from the agreements, he will also have to give up his hold on power — and dissolve the government which is the largest employer of people in the West Bank.

“We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements,” Abbas said, “[A]nd that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue.”

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Abbas has made similar threats to “return the keys” of the Palestinian territory to Israel, although many are skeptical that he would actually take that dire step.

Diana Buttu, who was formerly an adviser to Abbas, said that the Palestinian Authority “will not be dissolved anytime soon.”

“It is in the interests of both Israel and the international community for the [Palestinian Authority] to remain intact, and many Palestinians rely on it financially,” she added.

“He’ll be accused of abandoning his people. It’s the nuclear option. The question is: Is he serious?” said Aaron David Miller of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

While Abbas raised the possibility of returning the territory under his control to Israel, many have pointed out that he did not outline a timeline or lay out the specifics that would suggest a real shift.

It’s for that reason that many see the threat as a bargaining chip more than an earnest policy position. The move comes at a time when Abbas is suffering from slumping approval. Two-thirds of Palestinians polled by a local agency stated that they want him to resign.

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In such a political climate, Abbas’ speech could be read in different ways. Vox outlined two possible reads on what the Palestinian leader called a “bombshell” statement:

This policy, which Abbas highlighted in his UN speech, is a way of showing Palestinians that he has an alternative to Oslo. Arguably, the UN speech itself is part of the plan: By saying he’s abandoning Oslo, he’s attempting to show that the Palestinians are really upset with the status quo, and thus galvanize international pressure on Israel to make concessions.

That’s the sympathetic reading, anyway. The more skeptical reading is that Abbas, who has a habit of making threats and not seeing them through, has done that again, and that his track record means it will neither pressure Israel nor bolster his support with Palestinians.

Either way, it seems Abbas’ statement was more smoke than fire.