The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
On December 6, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and eventually move the American embassy there, breaking with nearly 70 years of U.S. policy. The announcement has put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a tough position. Abbas was already walking a political tightrope: he is in the middle of a delicate reconciliation process with his rivals in Hamas, and he faces a public deeply skeptical of his leadership and of the United States’ role in the peace process.
To appease ordinary Palestinians and to fend off attacks from his competitors, he responded harshly to Trump’s announcement, and he will soon take a harder line toward the peace process and a softer line toward Hamas than he otherwise would have. For Abbas and for the Palestinian Authority (PA), that is bad news.
Diplomats and lawyers will argue over whether Trump’s announcement prejudices the status of the Holy City in a final peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. (Trump’s speech left open the United States’ position regarding what he called the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”) But regardless of the answer, Abbas’ job is about to become much harder.
For two reasons, the Palestinian president had little choice but to strongly condemn the change in U.S. policy. The first relates to his domestic standing. No Palestinian leader—especially one as weak as Abbas is today—would be able to swim against the tide of protest that will soon rise in response to Trump’s announcement. Nor can Abbas afford to be seen as taking a softer line against the announcement than Hamas and the other players in the region—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to name a few—that have already condemned the change.
The second constraint on Abbas revolves around the peace process. Abbas will worry that Trump’s announcement portends the United States’ full adoption of the Israeli position on Jerusalem—namely, that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel and should host no Palestinian capital—which the Palestinians reject. “These condemned and unacceptable measures,” he said a few hours after Trump’s speech, “are a deliberate undermining of all efforts exerted to achieve peace and represent a declaration of the United States’ withdrawal from undertaking the role it has played over the past decades in sponsoring the peace process.”
In the short term, the change in U.S. policy will shift the balance among the various Palestinian blocs. Since October, Abbas’ party, Fatah, has been locked in reconciliation talks with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Abbas has taken an uncompromising line in the negotiations so far, insisting that Hamas disarm its military wing and refusing to integrate into the PA or pay the salaries of the bureaucrats that Hamas installed in Gaza after seizing the territory in 2007. It will now be difficult for Abbas to maintain those positions. Hamas will argue that the threat posed by the Jerusalem announcement demands unity and will push for relaxing the terms of reconciliation between itself and Fatah. If Abbas insists on his earlier sticking points, Hamas will accuse him of putting party before nation—a charge that is likely to gain traction among many Palestinians.
The effects of the announcement will reach beyond domestic politics. The Palestinian public has long been skeptical of Abbas’ willingness to work with the United States to relaunch the peace process. The Trump administration has not yet disclosed its blueprint for peace, and it is unclear whether it will demand far-reaching, politically untenable compromises from the Palestinians or whether Washington’s Arab allies will push the Palestinians to accept such compromises, as some recent reports have suggested. Still, the rumors about the peace process have darkened Palestinians’ outlook. The announcement about Jerusalem will only deepen their skepticism of future peace talks and of Abbas’ interest in them.
As a result, Abbas will soon have to fend off rivals, in Hamas and other opposition groups, who will accuse him of naiveté—or worse—for having dealt with the Trump administration over the peace process in the first place. Encouraged by Abbas’ old age and weak standing, some from his own Fatah party will join the chorus, hoping to burnish their nationalist credentials ahead of the contest to become his successor. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine how Abbas will be able to work with the Trump administration on a plan for peace.
If the announcement has a silver lining for Abbas, it is that it will allow him to rally the Middle East’s states behind his government. Abbas’ relations with most of the region’s countries have been strained in recent years, and he has occasionally come under pressure from them. Last year, for instance, the so-called Arab Quartet—which comprises Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—tried to push Abbas to clarify his government’s succession process. Some of those countries have also tried to convince Abbas to work more closely with the United States and to dissuade the PA from backing resolutions at the United Nations that would alienate Washington.
That pressure will now dissipate, since the crisis over Jerusalem will suck the oxygen from the other conversations around the Palestinian issue. This new dynamic will let Abbas fend off regional pressure for domestic change. He will use the opportunity to push the region’s leaders into taking up his positions, pressing them to adopt the Palestinians’ preconditions for negotiations with the Israelis and seeking to keep them from normalizing ties with Israel before the Palestinian issue is resolved.
Clashes are likely in the days ahead.
In general, however, the announcement’s effects for Abbas will be overwhelmingly negative. His government is already weak, owing partly to the public’s belief that it is corrupt and ineffective and partly to the failure of diplomacy to deliver on the PA’s promise of Palestinian independence. Trump’s decision will further damage Abbas’ legitimacy, pushing him to adopt hard-line positions to avoid being outflanked by Hamas and others.
The PA has called on the public to take to the streets in protest, and Abbas will likely sever his government’s security cooperation with Israel, as he did in July. That will add to the risk of violence. Clashes are likely in the days ahead.
Whether the announcement will lead to prolonged unrest or to a third intifada is impossible to predict. The Palestinian public has grown wearier of protest since the end of the second intifada in 2005, and in recent years, observers’ predictions of another such uprising—most recently after the clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City in July—have failed to materialize. Yet given the highly emotive nature of Jerusalem, the abundance of players such as Hamas that want to instigate clashes with Israeli forces, and the PA’s political weakness, the risk of conflict is high. Even if the worst does not come to pass, Trump’s announcement will leave in its wake a weakened Palestinian Authority, a volatile security situation, and a peace process in tatters before it could begin.