In my capacity as director of the Bada'el Center for Information from 2005 to 2011, and as Director of the Masarat Center from 2011 up till today, and in light of the experience gained over decades of thinking about and analyzing Palestinian policies and developments in their various Arab, regional, and international dimensions, I have been repeatedly asked (especially recently) one specific question: ‘What goes on in Mahmoud 'Abbas's mind?’" writes Hani al-Masri on the Palestinian www.masarat.ps.
What lies behind his policies? Why does he not change track, even though it has clearly reached a dead-end?
The president is in a difficult situation. The challenges and threats are enormous and growing, while the opportunities are few. For one thing, he deeply believes in the so-called 'peace process,' the  Oslo Accords, negotiations, and peaceful means for resolving the conflict, despite the fact that they have not achieved their hoped for aims. On the contrary, they have led to almost the exact opposite throughout, since negotiations cannot change the facts, but merely reflect the balance of power that is severely biased in favor of the Zionist settler colonialist project.
For another thing, President 'Abbas has called for popular resistance and internationalization of the cause. He has sought to win full membership for the State of Palestine in the UN, and when he failed in 2011 because he could not secure the necessary nine votes required to put full membership project to the vote at the Security Council, he brought the matter before the UN General Assembly and obtained observer status for the State of Palestine the next year. And he decided to sign many international agreements and join many international agencies, including the International Criminal Court, but without fully activating that membership. He used the aforementioned tools that are consistent with an urgently needed new track so as to serve the purpose of reviving and improving the terms of the old track that has not succeeded and will not succeed, but that has led to the catastrophe that we currently are in the midst of instead, and that will lead to even greater catastrophes if it does not change.
The president has also not wasted any chance to resume bilateral negotiations. In fact, he has made use of many such chances and has held a number of bilateral meetings and has expressed his readiness to take part in bilateral meetings with Binyamin Netanyahu in Moscow and Paris, without abiding by the preconditions that he has set for the resumption of such negotiations. At the same time, he has called for comprehensive negotiations via an international conference that specifies a timetable for the negotiations and their end. And he has supported initiatives that aim to resume bilateral negotiations, such as the 'Aqaba summit a year ago, in which he did not take part, even though it discussed the means of reaching a regional solution for the Palestinian problem.
All this may have contributed to his survival so far, and to sparing him the fate of his predecessor [Arafat]. It may have also spared the Palestinians in the occupied territories the fate of Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. But he has failed to make any real progress towards ending the occupation; on the contrary, the occupation has only deepened and the prospects of establishing a [Palestinian] state have receded despite the fact that Palestine has become a UN member with observer status. The only ‘possible state' in the short run, is 'Netanyahu's state' which is only a state by name.
Abu Mazin's dream was, and perhaps still is, not to end his political life like his preceding Palestinian leaders such as Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Ahmad Shuqairi, and Yasser 'Arafat, all of whom died before realizing their dream of expelling the Zionist invaders or liberating Palestine, or even establishing a Palestinian state on one-quarter of Palestinian soil. But what Abu Mazin has achieved is that he has remained the president of a self-rule authority that he himself openly says is an ‘authority without any authority’.
In order to establish the state that has not been established, Abu Mazin went far in displaying flexibility (and making concessions), so far, indeed, as to accept the principle of land-swap that strikes preemptively at the very heart of the Palestinian negotiating demand based on the principle of a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 – that is, the territories of the 'state' that has been recognized as a UN member with observer status. Accepting that principle also amounts to prior acceptance of 'legitimizing' the settlement blocs, as well as a readiness to concede part of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in return for substitute territories. And Abu Mazin also accepted a ‘fair and agreed-upon’ solution for the refugee issue, conceding on his right to return to his own hometown, Safad. That amounts to placing a veto regarding this issue, which is the basis and very heart of the Palestinian cause, in Israel's hand.
President 'Abbas has also determinedly rejected armed resistance in principle. He has supported popular resistance, but without throwing his weight and exercising his influence in Fatah, the PA, and the PLO behind it. He believes that the Palestinians will only reap what they have sown, and that what they have sown does not give them all of Palestine or a state along the 1967 borders or even less, unless they can demonstrate that they are an effective factor in providing security and stability for the regional order, including Israeli security. This is why he has defended security coordination with the occupation, deeming it ‘sacred’, and why he has defended the implementation of the political, economic, and security commitments stemming from the Oslo Accords, even if this implementation is unilateral.
His assumption is that this is the sole path to demonstrating the Palestinians’ credibility as an interlocutor and to secure Israeli, Arab, regional, American, and international 'credit' for the Palestinians. And this is despite the fact that the Palestinians have a lot in their favor – the justice of their cause, its moral superiority, its Arab, Islamic, and international dimensions, and the steely will of a nation that clings to its cause and rights and is ready to struggle for them no matter how long it may take and how dear the sacrifices.
Although over 12 years have passed since he became PA President, Abu Mazin has been unable to realize his dream of establishing a Palestinian state. In fact, this dream has drawn further away since. Yet Abu Mazin has not despaired or changed course except partially and tactically, because he believes that the cost of doing so will be similar to that paid by his predecessor. And he constantly repeats that he is not Yasser 'Arafat.
Now, however, Abu Mazin finds himself in an even more difficult situation. He is unable to continue with the policy he has been pursuing now that Donald Trump has become U.S. President. Trump has expressed even more support for Israel at a point when it is ruled by the rightwing and extreme rightwing, with each party competing with the others over a more hard-line position. There are those who want to annex the entire West Bank with or without its inhabitants; and there are those who want to annex only Area-C with or without its small [Palestinian] population, or are willing to annex some of that population based on strict criteria.
In light of this, Abu Mazin's margin for maneuver is narrowing. He will be unable to maintain the same policy that he has been pursuing ever since he became president. This is the policy in which, as we have noted, he combines a refusal to confront except within very narrow margins forced upon him, with a refusal to satisfy Israeli preconditions and diktats that would contribute to liquidating the Palestinian cause.
Today, Abu Mazin has to choose between the confrontation he does not want, the surrender he fears, and resignation. As a result, he has so far preferred to wait in the hope of remaining in power until some unexpected act of God occurs. After all, he enjoys total executive, legislative and judicial powers that his predecessor did not, thanks to the absence – and absenting – of institutions whether in the PLO or in the PA, as well as the weakness of Fatah’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council.
This weakness was consolidated by the results of Fatah’s Seventh [November 2016] Conference from which Abu Mazin emerged as a leader who holds all power in his hands undisputed, but from which Fatah itself emerged weakened. This is because Fatah did not make use of this opportunity to carry out a comprehensive review and formulate an all-inclusive national vision that can unite the nation and rebuild the PLO's institutions, enabling it to include all shades of the political and social spectrum. For this reason, the PLO has become the party of the PA and its employees, and is no longer a national liberation movement. Moreover, it has suffered the consequences of the disagreement with [former Fatah security head] Mohammad Dahlan and his crowd, and from the consequences of that disagreement at the Arab level.
Some may ask: Why does Abu Mazin not head towards ending the inter-Palestinian split, thereby becoming more than the head of Fatah, the PA, the PLO, and some of the Palestinians, thereby turning into the leader of all Palestinians?
What has prevented him from doing so is that the PA he heads is hostage to the unfair commitments imposed on it. Moreover, the path towards national unity necessarily passes through a full and genuine political partnership. And this means that Hamas will become a major partner without whose participation decisions and policies cannot be made. For Hamas is not of the same size as the other factions whose existence has allowed Abu Mazin to remain at the head of the PA and the PLO without opposition or any participation in influencing his leadership. Moreover, Hamas is better organized than Fatah, which means that its participation could pave its way to assuming leadership.
And what prevents Abu Mazin from pursuing the path of unity as well is the fact that participation in decision-making would not be confined to Hamas. He would also have to share this with Fatah, because he would be in greater need for the movement once unity is achieved. Moreover, the value and participation of the other factions would grow, because they would be courted by the two major factions so as to win them over to their side. Furthermore, unity would elicit severe Israeli anger; and since Israel is the occupying state, it plays a major role that cannot be ignored in the Palestinian court. In addition, if Hamas and Islamic Jihad were to join the PLO without accepting the International Quartet's preconditions, that would expose the PLO to American, and perhaps European and international, boycott.
This is why Abu Mazin prefers to keep the situation as is, because he believes the damage is less than that of unity.
But the 'Achilles' heel' in Abu Mazin's understanding of the situation is his belief that it is possible to maintain the current status quo until such developments and changes occur that would allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But past experience, since the Oslo Accords up till now, and specifically since Abu Mazin became PA President, have produced less positive developments as much as negative ones, not only because that status quo has been unable to fulfill the promise of a state, but also because the fulfillment of that promise has drawn further away because the occupation has deepened. Settlements are expanding at a horrific rate; the parts of the Palestinian state are being severed from each other; Gaza is under siege; the split continues; and the cause is being marginalized.
This renders a change in course unavoidable, despite all the threats and losses that this may entail. This is because it has become impossible for the status quo to remain as before. This would lead to the loss of everything and face Abu Mazin with a choice between the confrontation that he does not want and the surrender he fears.
"And if Abu Mazin is unable to choose either one or the other, the best option for him would be to hand over the trust to some who is ready to bear it, while providing for a smooth, patriotic, and legal transition of power and leadership, seeking the people's verdict as soon as possible while incurring no losses-- or the least possible losses," concludes Masri.