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No, the Palestinians didn't just cancel the peace process. Here's what actually happened.

Mahmoud Abbas at the UN.
Mahmoud Abbas at the UN.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made what sounded like a bombshell announcement on Wednesday during a speech to the UN General Assembly.

"We will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements," Abbas said, citing, among other grievances, Israel's failure to curb settlement activity in the West Bank. "We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power, because the status quo cannot continue."

This seemed like Abbas announcing that Palestinians would no longer observe the Oslo Accords, the 1993 and 1995 agreement that has served as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence and peace negotiations for two decades. That would mean dismantling not just the Israel-Palestine peace process, but the very governance of the Palestinian territories.

But these reports seem to be drastically overstating what happened. So far, this appears to be little more than an empty gesture — and may speak more to Abbas's political desperation than anything else.

What Abbas's announcement does and doesn't mean

(BBC)

The crucial thing to understand about Abbas's statement is that the Oslo agreements aren't just a framework for peace negotiations. They also fundamentally shape how the Palestinian territories are governed under the Israeli occupation — in ways that it's far from obvious Abbas is actually ready to abandon.

The Oslo Accords set up the Palestinian Authority (PA), a government that's supposed to manage Palestinian territory until Palestine is officially a state. Under Oslo, the Palestinian Authority is tasked with ruling a chunk of the West Bank called Area A in the above map (which contains most of the heavily populated areas). Area B is under Palestinian civilian control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, while Area C is under Israeli control.

Abbas did not explicitly commit to dissolving the PA, or ending the Area A-B-C division of the West Bank. In fact, he didn't cite a single specific provision of Oslo that his announcement would affect. The closest he came was saying, "Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power," which sort of implies that Israel will be forced to govern the West Bank fully on its own, but it's still really unclear. Without any practical action, Oslo will remain in place in all but name — regardless of Abbas's rhetoric.

That's why many observers of Israeli-Palestinian politics shrugged at the speech. Abbas "offered no plan to change [the status quo]," Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, wrote. "Abbas' bombshell got stuck in the bomb bay," quipped Gregg Carlstrom, a longtime Middle East reporter.

Even if Abbas had said he would dissolve the PA, which he didn't, it would still merit heavy skepticism. Abbas has repeatedly threatened to take this step, including in both April and November of last year, and then walked it back.

Now, it's possible Abbas could shock everyone and actually make good on his threats to end Oslo, either now or sometime in the future. But at this point, it'd be a real surprise — which is why this speech isn't quite what it's been made out to be.

What Abbas's speech was really about: deflecting Palestinian anger with him and internationalizing the peace process

hebron clashes september 2015

A Palestinian throws a petrol bomb at Israeli police during clashes in Hebron. (Hazem Badr/AFP/Getty Images)

Abbas is getting politically desperate. A poll released a little over a week ago, from the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research, found that two-thirds of Palestinians wanted him to resign. His Fatah party declined in popularity in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Abbas's stubborn commitment to Oslo is a big part of his problem. The stalled peace process and the grinding reality of life under Israeli occupation has convinced Palestinians that the status quo isn't working. They think that Oslo, with all the cooperation with Israel that it entails, is increasingly obsolete.

"Among Palestinians, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority is at a real nadir, and there are many, many more Palestinians questioning the entire Oslo structure," Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Max Fisher in March. "More are arguing that it's not worth it, that Palestinians are worse off under the Oslo framework. Their voices are getting louder."

Abbas's UN gambit, then, might be a way of trying to deflect popular Palestinian sentiment blaming him for their travails under the Oslo structure he supports. Abandoning Oslo in principle, but not in practice, could be an effort to show Palestinians that he understands their concerns while still keeping the Palestinian Authority, the source of his power, in place.

This also fits with Abbas's recent attempts to "internationalize" the Israel-Palestine conflict. The basic idea here is to bring more international pressure to bear on Israel to force it to take peace negotiations more seriously. For example, Palestine has joined the International Criminal Court in an attempt to isolate Israel diplomatically.

This policy, which Abbas highlighted in his UN speech, is a way of showing Palestinians that he has an alternative to Oslo. Arguably, the UN speech itself is part of the plan: By saying he's abandoning Oslo, he's attempting to show that the Palestinians are really upset with the status quo, and thus galvanize international pressure on Israel to make concessions.

That's the sympathetic reading, anyway. The more skeptical reading is that Abbas, who has a habit of making threats and not seeing them through, has done that again, and that his track record means it will neither pressure Israel nor bolster his support with Palestinians.

So it's very far from clear the speech will actually help Abbas accomplish his goals: Palestinians, more than any one else, are capable of recognizing an empty threat from Abbas when they see one. But regardless, it tells us a lot about how Palestinians are thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today — and thus the state of the conflict itself.