Mahmud Abbas heads to the UN this week for a speech expected to be closely watched for clues of his intentions at a time of growing despair among Palestinians, moribund peace talks and volatility in Jerusalem.
Abbas’s actions in recent weeks have spurred speculation ranging from whether the 80-year-old’s retirement is imminent to whether he intends to take the drastic step of dismantling the Palestinian Authority to reenergize the push for statehood.
A recent poll found that Palestinians are increasingly exasperated with his leadership and Israel’s right-wing government. A majority favour a return to armed uprising in the absence of peace talks and two-thirds want Abbas to resign.
Clashes in recent weeks between Israeli police and Palestinians at the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem have raised tensions further and prompted Abbas to warn of the risk of a third intifada if the volatility worsens.
If that were not enough, the Palestinian president’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday comes with much of the world’s attention having drifted toward other concerns, such as combating Islamic State jihadists.
“Mahmud Abbas is going to tell everyone that the current situation is no longer tenable, that the Authority has authority in name only while Israel is destroying any idea of a two-state solution,” a Palestinian official told AFP, declining to provide further details.
In the runup to the speech, there have been reports that Abbas would use the opportunity to drop a “bombshell”.
Suggestions of what that could mean have included a complete withdrawal from the Oslo accords of the 1990s or the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority that those agreements created.
While such an announcement could potentially have a major impact, many analysts question whether Abbas would truly press ahead with it.
– ‘Who will make concessions?’ –
Some speculate that suggestions ahead of the speech may have been in the hope of gaining concessions from those in the international community who would not want him to take those steps.
“I think he would like everyone to pressure him not to do it, then see what he will get out of it,” said Yossi Mekelberg of the London-based Chatham House think tank’s Middle East programme.
“Even in the corridors of the United Nations, use it as effectively as he can to get some concessions. But the question is, who will make these concessions?”
The Palestinian Authority was intended to be a temporary arrangement to serve as a governing administration over five years before negotiations leading to a final status, two-state settlement.
That of course did not happen, and peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled for more than a year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent mixed signals, ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state while campaigning for March elections before later backtracking.
There is also a lack of trust between the two sides with the formation of one of Israel’s most right-wing governments in its history after the March vote, and Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank has continued.
– Polls reflect disillusion –
Organisers of a recent poll by the respected Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research said for the first time in its surveys a majority called for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.
It also showed 57 percent of Palestinians support a return to an armed intifada in the absence of peace negotiations, up from 49 percent three months ago.
The poll organisers said the figure was similar to numbers seen ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.
A recent leak of documents alleging corruption among Palestinian officials has not helped matters.
Two decades after the Oslo accords, the Palestinian public sees the political process as having “failed,” with statehood far from being achieved, said Palestinian political scientist George Giacaman.
“For them, Oslo promised the delivery of a two-state solution,” he said.
Abbas’s Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority based in the occupied West Bank, also remains deeply divided from Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave still badly reeling from last summer’s war with Israel.
Amid the turbulence, Abbas has raised the possibility of resigning as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation while remaining Palestinian Authority president.
Abbas’s allies say such moves are part of efforts to inject new blood into the Palestinian leadership.
Critics however argue that Abbas is manoeuvring to empower his allies and marginalise opponents ahead of his eventual retirement.