Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been speaking in increasingly belligerent tones in recent weeks, accusing Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza and calling on Palestinians to defend their religious sites “by any means.”
The heightened rhetoric is an apparent sign of desperation as Abbas tries to halt a slide in his popularity following this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Abbas has staked his decade-long presidency on the pursuit of an independent Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel. But he seems out of ideas after another failed round of talks that collapsed in April, a war that boosted the popularity of the rival Hamas (despite the devastation it wrought), and a bumpy attempt to win new recognition at the United Nations.
Yet Abbas has also carefully avoided any steps that would irreversibly harm his relationship with Israel.
The disconnect between words and action was on jarring display over the weekend when Abbas’s security forces beat Palestinian protesters marching in support of a Muslim-run religous site that is claimed by them to be under threat of a Jewish takeover. Just hours later, Abbas urged his Fatah members to defend the al-Aqsa mosque “by any means.”
Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu said Abbas’s lack of political vision is behind his new populist tone.
“He has nothing to hang his hat on any longer,” she said. “He is making more forceful statements because he knows that public opinion toward him and his party is at an all-time low.”
No serious challenger to the 79-year-old Abbas has emerged during his decade as president. But an October poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a respected research center, indicates that he and his Fatah Party are in serious trouble.
His approval rating has dropped by 11 points, to 39 percent, since the Gaza war, according to the poll. If presidential elections were held today, Abbas would come in last in a three-way race against Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in Gaza, and Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, a notorious terrorist in prison in Israel.
Abbas is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution setting a November 2016 deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Yehudah and Shomron. The Palestinians need nine of 15 votes for their resolution to score a symbolic diplomatic victory and embarrass the U.S. by forcing it to cast a veto. For now, they are two votes short.