Tony Karon
The National (Opinion)
June 22, 2011 - 12:00am

Perhaps, as a youth, President Mahmoud Abbas was never told the parable of the boy who cried wolf. I suggest this because the Palestinian Authority leader has with such monotonous regularity brandished the threat to quit his job that he appears to believe it is a vital weapon in the Palestinian diplomatic arsenal.

In March Mr Abbas warned the US and Israel that he would walk away from his post if the peace process did not continue. Last December, he extended that threat to include dissolving the Palestinian Authority. He had also made the threat three months earlier, and in May 2008. And so on.

But this year Mr Abbas has introduced new variations on the theme, threatening to defy US instructions by forming a unity government with Hamas, and by moving to seek UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, in September.

Despite appearances, however, neither of these is a done deal, and Mr Abbas keeps insisting that he'd really rather be negotiating with the Israelis - if only they would offer more credible terms.

All these threats express Mr Abbas's exasperation at the poor return on the two decades he has invested in US-anchored negotiations with Israel. The "you'll be sorry" subtext of his posturing is never directed at his own people, but always at the US and Israel, to whom he clearly believes his services are indispensable. His message is that if they fail to provide what he needs, they'll have to face his people without the benefit of him as their accommodating interlocutor.

Heaven knows what the Palestinians Mr Abbas is supposedly leading make of this constant threat to quit. He has long adopted his predecessor's attitude of knowing what's best for his people, and engaging with the West and Israel on their behalf - but out of earshot.

Just as Yasser Arafat made himself, and not the institutions of the PA, the epicentre of Palestinian national political life, so Mr Abbas was encouraged by the Bush administration to do the same, after the Authority's democratic institutions fell to Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian election.

Even now, the hype around Prime Minister Salam Fayyad - appointed at the Bush administration's behest, rather than being elected - often ignores the fact that he and Mr Abbas have ignored and suppressed the PA's institutions of democratic decision making. The PA is a competent bureaucracy and security service, entirely dependent on western financial succour. Nor is public dissent tolerated.

Hamas, for its part, has found its writ reduced to Gaza, and runs a similarly authoritarian administration - and often appears caught between competing instincts for "resistance" and governance.

The PA and Hamas were both somewhat alarmed by the stirrings of popular protest ignited on their turf by the Arab Spring. But when Mr Abbas and Hamas's Khaled Meshaal agreed seven weeks ago on a reconciliation pact, it seemed an important step on the road towards statehood - as demanded by the grassroots protests. The deal would put a unity government in charge of rebuilding and politically reintegrating Gaza and preparing for new elections.

But as the unity process flounders over whether Mr Fayyad will remain in charge of government, some Palestinian analysts suggest that the unity pact itself is now viewed by Mr Abbas in the same way as his threats to quit: as leverage over the US and Israel.

With a new flurry of US and European diplomatic activity being aimed at restarting peace talks to head off any UN vote, Mr Abbas may believe his threats are bringing about a more credible peace process. There's no evidence to support such a belief, of course - Benjamin Netanyahu's government is the most rejectionist Israel has had since the peace process began, and will offer Mr Abbas less than the Palestinian leader turned down from Ehud Olmert. Nor are there any sane grounds for expecting the Obama administration to press the Israelis to do more.

But Mr Abbas has spent the past decade hoping against hope, appearing to see his people's choices as limited to either the Quixotic madness of a renewed terror campaign (which he has wisely rejected), or passively waiting - metaphorically speaking - in the back seat of the US limo, hoping that the driver ignores the instructions of the more powerful Israeli passenger, and eventually drops him off at a Palestinian state.

The idea that Mr Abbas's threats to break with Washington's script have forced the Israelis and Americans towards more serious negotiations is the charitable explanation for Mr Abbas appearing to back away from a unity government if Hamas won't accept Mr Fayyad as prime minister. (Mr Fayyad was always going to be a non-starter for Hamas, given his centrality to a US-backed strategy to crush Hamas on the West Bank and throttle it in Gaza.)

The less kind explanation would be that money talks: the threat to cut off the western funds on which the PA is wholly dependent may be scaring Mr Abbas into retreat.

Either way, Mr Abbas backing away from a unity government could signal a lack of intent to pursue the UN vote. Those who meet with Mr Abbas say his constant refrain about preferring negotiations with the Israelis is heartfelt.

That's because the unity government and the UN route reflect a return to Palestinian reliance on their own energies and efforts, heading down a new and uncharted path of struggle to claim their rights, in the spirit of the courageous risks taken by those of who have risen against despotism across the Arab world.

Such a course would take Mr Abbas and his circle out of their comfort zone. Their politics, common to Arab leaders of their generation, reflects a profound lack of confidence in their own people.

The danger for Mr Abbas remains, however, that the spirit of the Arab Spring could yet persuade his own people to return the compliment.


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