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Video: Why are Israel and the United States Protecting Mahmoud Abbas?

Shoshana Bryen

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is 88, has prostate cancer and undergone two heart procedures. He’s now in the 19th year of a four-year term. But no one, says Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, will succeed him. 

Instead, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), over which Abbas presides as head of the Palestinian Authority, will deteriorate into violent conflict among various armed “tribal” groups representing Palestinian clans and political movements. Already, the PA does not control centers of anti-Israel terrorism like Jenin, Bryen noted.

This city, in the northern West Bank, has been a focal point of Israeli counter-terrorism since a 2002 battle during the Second Intifada in which 52 Palestinian Arabs—nearly all armed men—and 23 Israel Defense Forces troops died. In mid-June, an Israeli attempt to arrest two terrorists at the Jenin refugee camp resulted in a battle in which five Palestinian gunmen and one civilian were killed, seven Israeli troops wounded, improvised explosive devices damaged IDF armored vehicles and Israel used a helicopter to fire rockets at Palestinian positions.

The municipality has been a hub not only for individuals affiliated with established terrorist groups like Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad but also newer movements such as the Lions’ Den and Jenin Brigade. Its record points toward intra-Palestinian violence once Abbas is gone, Bryen said on a June 21 webinar co-sponsored by the Jewish Policy Center and EMET—the Endowment for Middle East Truth.  

Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria “have fractured into tribal, terror groups as the leadership or management” of units smaller than the PA with its nominal responsibility for all the West Bank, according to Bryen. As a result, Arab residents of the territories see a post-Abbas civil war “as a distinct possibility for them” and the various armed movements as potential protectors. 

She said that meanwhile, the United States and Israel prop up Abbas—whose approval rating stood at 32 percent in a recent poll of Palestinian opinion—and the PA for different reasons. “What Israel does [to protect Israeli citizens] has a side effect of protecting Abbas” by buffering him and the PA from more popular Palestinian rivals, she explained. 

“Weapons flow from Iran into the West Bank,” Bryen said, to places including Jenin and organizations like the Lions’ Den, in addition to Iranian-funded Hamas and PIJ. Concern for its own security “also tells you why Israel protects Jordan … and why the United States won’t demand the extradition of Ahlam al-Tamimi.” Al-Tamimi pled guilty to planning the 2001 Sbarro Pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem that killed 15 people, including two Americans. 

She has been living in Jordan after being released in a 2011 swap of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier captured by Hamas. Bryen said Washington is afraid if Amman does extradite al-Tamimi, on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, “the Jordanian government will fall.” 

Tension between the Biden administration and Jerusalem “is not really about Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] being prime minister,” she asserted, “but about the United States wanting to preserve Abbas.” That’s because Washington still pursues a “two-state solution” to the Palestinian conflict with Israel rather than give priority to expanding the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, Bryen said. These achieved full diplomatic recognition between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Washington has learned little from the failure of the 1993 Oslo “peace process,” Bryen stated. But Israelis did. After Washington and Jerusalem offered Yasser Arafat a two-state deal at Camp David in 2000, the Palestinian leader launched the second intifada terror war. Following its withdrawal from Lebanon that same year, Israel got the Iranian-funded and armed Hezbollah on its northern border. If a third “clue” was needed, Jerusalem received it in 2005, Bryen said. Its unilateral retreat from the Gaza Strip was followed by Hamas seizing power from the PA in the Gaza Strip.

Israel learned “you don’t give up territory and you don’t let Iran in the door” directly or through surrogates, she said. Though tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs work in Israel and Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and there are many “who work with Israel to make life better., there is no one Israel can look to who could control the entire territories,” Bryen said. Those positively inclined “have no position of power. … The armed people have the power.”  

Arab states began moving from the Palestinian cause as a top priority as far back as 1991 when Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait. But “the U.S. is where it was in 1993, more or less.” In other words, wedded to the assumption that the PA, led by Abbas, remains Israel’s partner for a “two-state solution.” 

The Biden administration, seeking a new “non-agreement agreement” with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons development efforts, and canceling a pending Negev summit among Israel, Arab and African states, remains “on the wrong track,” according to Bryen.

This webinar is generously sponsored by Sarah and Buddy Stern in loving memory of their respective siblings Mynda Barenholtz and Alan Stern.