Mahmoud Abbas courts disaster by rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars the Palestinians desperately need
Sep 15, 2020 | Allon Lee
Three things seem certain in the Middle East: death, taxes and the uncanny ability of Palestinian leaders to make terrible choices that leave their people worse off.
A New York Times feature has demonstrated yet again not only this principle in action but the dysfunction at the heart of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ 15–year one-man rule.
If it wasn’t enough that the West Bank economy had been hammered by the flow-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbas has made things even worse since June by refusing to accept hundreds of millions of Palestinian tax dollars that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf and which account for “for more than 60 percent of the authority’s budget”.
According to Times reporters Adam Rasgon and Mohammed Najib, Abbas is sticking to his guns. He is reportedly unhappy that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has said he has only suspended but hasn’t formally cancelled controversial plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. This suspension was the quid pro quo the UAE demanded to normalise relations with the Jewish state – but virtually no one in Israel expects the sovereignty extension plans to move forward any time soon, if at all. Indeed, there are reports the US promised the UAE that it would not recognise any such Israeli moves until at least 2024.
Yet, as the Times reports:
Because annexation remains a possibility, though, Mr. Abbas is still refusing to accept the money, in what some Palestinian officials privately say is more an attempt to save face than to force further changes in Israeli policy.
So while Mr. Abbas looks for some kind of gesture from Israel that he can hold up as a victory, and Israel refuses to commit to dropping annexation permanently, salaries in the territory are not being paid, families are enduring hardships, and the Palestinian Authority is careering toward bankruptcy.
Concerned at the potential for disaster, representatives from “the European Union, the United Nations, Britain and several Arab countries have all urged the Palestinian Authority to resume accepting the transfers from Israel.”
But Abbas seems adamant, unconcerned at the suffering his stance is inflicting on Palestinian families.
Indeed, according to the Times, when British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab asked him to change his mind during a recent visit to Ramallah, Abbas astonishingly responded:
“In return for what?” according to a person familiar with details of the exchange.
Maybe in return for your people not starving?
And let’s remember this money is not charity. It belongs to the Palestinians – it is Palestinian-paid taxes collected by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf under long-standing agreements.
The whole story recalls the famous scene from the comedy classic “Blazing Saddles” in which the black sheriff, about to be killed by racist townspeople, puts a gun to his own head and holds himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself unless they back off.
While Abbas’ decision–making may be faulty, the BS detectors of ordinary Palestinians seem to be working fine, as the Times reported:
“He made the decision, but he’s not paying the price for it,” said Abu Qusay, the teacher in Hebron. “I’m the one paying the price. The president’s life hasn’t changed at all. He still has cars, bodyguards and everything he would ever need.”
Meanwhile, Abbas’ people are spinning madly, making far-fetched efforts to shift the blame onto Israel.
The Times report noted that PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has said:
“Mr. Abbas is refusing to accept the transfers because Israel is demanding that the Palestinians first deal directly with Israeli officials.”
However, the report continued,
“But Israeli security officials deny that Israel has placed any conditions on transferring the taxes to Ramallah, and say that the Palestinians need only decide to accept them.”
The report also suggests Abbas’ indecision is preventing him making plans to benefit Palestinians:
Mr. Abbas told a group of Palestinian officials last week that he remained opposed to accepting the tax money under the decades-old economic agreements with Israel that governed those transfers. That opened the door to accepting the money on new terms. But he did not propose any.
Long-time Abbas watchers may recall how he responded in 2008 to then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s face-to-face offer to create a Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, with shared control of Jerusalem. He responded by not responding at all, and then finding excuses never to meet Olmert again until many years after Olmert left office.
Abbas also played the same card during the Obama Administration–mediated peace talks in 2014, refusing to give any input on the White House’s framework document for a two-state peace, even though it was tilted in the Palestinians’ favour.
As his Israeli counterpart is about to enjoy the fruits of historic peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain at a coveted White House signing event on Wednesday, Abbas will be in Ramallah stewing over how to solve a potential humanitarian disaster of his own making.
And Palestinian civil servants will not be getting paid, and thousands of Palestinian families will be left wondering how they will be able to afford to put food on the table.