A succession of top U.S. officials have travelled to the West Bank in recent weeks to meet with Mahmoud Abbas in the hope the 88-year-old – a spectator in the war between Israel and Hamas – can overhaul his unpopular Palestinian Authority enough to run Gaza after the conflict.
An architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel that raised hopes of Palestinian statehood, Abbas has seen his legitimacy steadily undermined by Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, which he oversees. Many Palestinians now regard his administration as corrupt, undemocratic and out of touch.
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But in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, President Joe Biden has made it clear that he wants to see a revitalized Palestinian Authority – which Abbas has run since 2005 – take charge in Gaza once the conflict is over, unifying its administration with the West Bank.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, met with Abbas on Friday, becoming the latest senior U.S. official to urge him to implement rapid change. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after meeting the Palestinian leader in late November that they discussed the need for reforms to combat corruption, empower civil society and support a free press.
Three Palestinian and one senior regional official briefed on the conversations said that Washington’s proposals behind closed doors would also involve Abbas ceding some of his control over the Authority.
Under the proposals that have been floated, Abbas could appoint a deputy, hand broader executive powers to his prime minister, and introduce new figures into the leadership of the organization, the Palestinian and regional sources said.
The White House did not provide answers to Reuters questions. The State Department said leadership choices were a question for the Palestinian people and did not elaborate on the steps needed to revitalize the Authority.
In an interview with Reuters at his office in Ramallah, Abbas said he was ready to revamp the Palestinian Authority with new leaders and to hold elections – which have been suspended since Hamas won the last vote in 2006 and pushed the PA out of Gaza – provided there was a binding international agreement that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
That has been something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition have refused to countenance.
“The problem is not changing (Palestinian) politicians and forming a new government, the problem is the policies of the Israeli government,” Abbas said in the interview last week, when asked about the U.S. proposals.
While Abbas may accept that his long rule is nearing its end, he and other Palestinian leaders say the U.S., Israel’s key strategic ally, must press Netanyahu’s government to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
According to a person in Washington familiar with the matter, Abbas has privately expressed openness to some U.S. proposals for reform of the PA, including bringing in “new blood” with technocratic skills and giving the prime minister’s office new executive powers.
While U.S. officials insist they had not proposed any names to Abbas, regional sources and diplomats say some in Washington and Israel favour Hussein al-Sheikh – general secretary of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella group of non-Islamist factions – as a possible deputy and future successor.
Sheikh, who also met with Sullivan in Ramallah, said the devastating war in Gaza showed that Hamas’ violent tactics were not working and he backed the idea of talks. “Isn’t it worth discussing how to manage this conflict with the Israeli occupation?” he said in a rare interview with Reuters at the weekend.
Washington has appealed to Jordan, Egypt and Gulf states – which have some sway with the PA – to persuade Abbas to pursue institutional reforms with urgency to prepare for the “day after”, four U.S. sources said, including two administration officials. Officials in Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Abbas has pledged several times to overhaul his administration in recent years and has little to show for it, so senior U.S. officials will continue to push as they wait to see if he will follow through this time, the U.S. sources said.
U.S. officials recognize, however, that Abbas remains the only realistic Palestinian leadership figure for the time being, despite being unpopular among Palestinians and distrusted by Israel, which has denounced his failure to condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
Biden’s aides have quietly urged Israeli leaders to drop their resistance to the PA, once it is revitalized, taking a leading role in post-conflict Gaza, according to a senior U.S. administration official , who asked not to be identified because of the confidential nature of the talks.
“There is no other show in town,” said another of the U.S. sources. In the short term, Israel needs to unblock more tax transfers to the PA, which it froze in the wake of Oct 7, so it can pay salaries, U.S. officials say.
Conversations about what happens once the war is over have picked up in recent weeks, but no plan has been presented to Abbas, Palestinian and U.S. diplomatic sources said.
International condemnation of Israel’s offensive has risen as the death toll has climbed, approaching 19,000 people on Friday according to Gaza health authorities, but Netanyahu has insisted the war will continue until Hamas is destroyed, hostages returned, and Israel made safe from future attacks.
Israeli forces invaded Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’ cross-border rampage in southern Israel more than two months ago in which it killed about 1,200 people and took 240 hostages. On Thursday, Sullivan discussed with Netanyahu moves to shift Israel’s attacks on Gaza to lower-intensity operations focused on high-value targets.
The U.S. is also telling Israel that PA security forces eventually must have a presence in Gaza after the war, as they already do in parts of the West Bank, said the senior U.S. official.
Netanyahu said on Tuesday, however, there was disagreement with his American ally about the PA governing Gaza. Gaza “will neither be Hamas-stan nor Fatah-stan,” he said.
Founded after the 1993 Oslo accords, the PA, controlled by Abbas’ Fatah party, was meant to be an interim administration to lead the way towards an independent Palestinian state. It has been run by Abbas for the past 18 years without achieving that.
U.S. officials think Abbas has potential to regain some credibility among Palestinians if he can show he is rooting out corruption, nurturing a new generation of leaders, mobilising foreign aid to rebuild Gaza after the war and building support abroad for Palestinian statehood.
In his interview with Reuters, Abbas called on the United States to sponsor an international peace conference to agree the final steps leading to a Palestinian state. Such a gathering could be modeled after the 1991 Madrid summit convened by U.S. President George Bush following the 1990-91 Gulf War.
A senior U.S. official said the idea of a conference had been discussed with partners, but the proposal was still at a preliminary stage.
Abbas and other Palestinian leaders believe the U.S. must press Israel harder to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“It is the only power that is capable of ordering Israel to stop the war and fulfil its obligations, but unfortunately it doesn’t,” he told Reuters.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, called on Washington to exert real pressure on Israel through measures such as Security Council votes, stopping arms deliveries and imposing sanctions against settlement expansion.
Blinken announced this month sanctions on Israeli settlers responsible for attacks on Palestinians, but the U.S. government has remained a staunch defender of Israel at the United Nations – rejecting calls for a humanitarian ceasefire – and Biden has pushed through military aid in recent weeks.
“AN AUTHORITY WITHOUT AUTHORITY”
Sari Nusseibeh, a moderate Palestinian from Jerusalem who was president of Al Quds University, said there were misgivings about the PA’s monopoly on power, and what he termed its disengagement from reality and its corruption. But he said that without Israel ending its occupation of the West Bank and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state the situation would not improve.
“The problem is not limited to Abbas, because if Abbas goes, no matter who replaces him can do nothing,” said Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy.
Biden aides are grappling with how to provide a “political horizon” for the Palestinians, with the Israeli public in no mood for concessions.
Even in the West Bank, the PA is now unpopular because it is regarded as a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. Israeli forces often carry out raids into areas under PA rule, including Ramallah.
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, published on Wednesday, showed growing popularity for Hamas among Palestinians versus a decline for Abbas, suggesting the militant group might win any elections in Palestinian territories.
Though a ballot is long overdue, the U.S. believes it would be premature to send Palestinians to the polls soon after the war ends. U.S. officials are mindful of Hamas’ victory in 2006 legislative elections, which were encouraged by Washington and other Western governments. Whenever elections are held, Hamas must be excluded, U.S. sources said.
The West Bank is increasingly the site of expanding Israeli settlements and security checkpoints that make Palestinians’ daily journeys arduous. Many complain of a rise in violent attacks: in the past two months, Israelis have killed at least 287 West Bank Palestinians.
“This is an authority without authority,” said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician whose name has been floated as a possible candidate for prime minister, noting that the PA didn’t control its own revenues or security. He said it was the end of Israeli occupation – rather than internal reform – that would legitimize Palestinian leadership.
“Any Palestinian Authority that is going to serve the Israeli occupation is going to be discredited and illegitimate”.
But Washington is adamantly against Hamas leaders playing any role, even as a junior partner, the U.S. officials said. They also said Israel troops should not remain in Gaza for more than an unspecified “transitional” period once the war is over.
Some Palestinian officials say that restoring the authority’s credibility would require expanding its base in a national unity administration, governing Gaza and the West Bank, that would include Hamas.
“A vacuum isn’t the solution either, because that would be terrible and might give Hamas space to return,” the senior Biden administration official said.