For most of his 12 years as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas has enjoyed the White House’s full-throated backing. The administration of George W. Bush, which supported Abbas’ appointment as prime minister in 2003 and lauded his rise to the presidency in 2005, showered his government with material aid and pledges of political support. Barack Obama, who called Abbas on his first day as U.S. president, launched two rounds of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and allowed Abbas to consolidate power at home.
Now Abbas must deal with the likelihood that the next U.S. administration may be hostile to his government, given the Donald Trump team’s insistence on moving the United States’ embassy to Jerusalem and Congress’ threats to rescind aid to the PA. The months ahead will thus bring new challenges to Abbas’ political position from abroad just as he faces deep problems at home.
IN A BIND
During the Bush administration, reform and democratization stood at the top of the United States’ agenda for the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, a longtime bureaucrat who opposed the terror attacks of the second intifada, seemed well suited to advance those priorities. During his brief tenure as prime minister in 2003, he positioned himself as the PA’s reformer, attempting to siphon off some of Yasir Arafat’s control of the security services and opening up government institutions. In 2005, when Abbas was elected president, he pledged to hold the first Palestinian legislative elections in a decade the next year—a sign of his commitment to the democratic process. His record so appealed to the Bush White House that after Hamas’ shocking victory in the 2006 elections and takeover of Gaza in 2007, Washington moved even closer to Abbas, providing his government with hundreds of millions of dollars in political, financial, and military aid.
A different dynamic emerged when Obama became president in 2009. Obama’s insistence on a freeze on Israeli remov[ing] the ladder,” as Abbas put it in April 2011. In the years that followed, the United States, seeking to turn its attention elsewhere in the region, gradually began to ignore Abbas’ domestic actions, allowing him to consolidate his grip on power without imposing consequences on his government. In 2013, Abbas forced out his reform-minded prime minister Salam Fayyad; in 2015, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank violated press freedoms four times more frequently than they did in 2013, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms.
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