While visiting Kazakhstan last week to attend a summit on cooperation in Asia, Mahmoud Abbas took the opportunity to poke the U.S. in the eye in one of the most enraging ways he could have chosen. Abbas met with Vladimir Putin—itself an interesting choice given Russia’s war on Ukraine—and declared that in his view, Russia stands on the side of justice and international law. Not merely content to give Russia a positive propaganda boost, Abbas also lashed out at the U.S. in public televised comments, saying that he neither trusts nor depends on the U.S., and then repeating it for emphasis. He then continued by thanking Putin for military training and student scholarships, and for not yet fulfilled promises of food assistance. All in all, Abbas made it clear where he thinks his proverbial bread is buttered and to which side the Palestinians should lean in the widening split between the U.S. and its allies and Russia.
There has been plenty of subsequent commentary about how Abbas’ latest move allegedly fits into a longer Palestinian pattern of choosing the wrong side, whether it be the Germans in WWII or Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. I’m not a big fan of historically deterministic morality plays, so this aspect of Abbas cozying up to Putin in the midst of a new geopolitical split where Russia is clearly on the side of violating the post-WWII international order and rules of the game is not where the bulk of my criticism is directed. The more obvious problem with Abbas bashing the U.S. and praising Russia is that it makes no sense from the perspective of Palestinian interests, and if it fits into any years-long pattern, it is the one where Abbas expects a long list of things from the U.S. without being willing to accede to U.S. requests in return.
Abbas’ frustration with the U.S. is well established. The Palestinians have engaged in multiple rounds of U.S.-brokered peace talks following the PLO’s recognition of Israel 35 years ago, and are no closer to statehood while also seeing the benefits they receive from the U.S. steadily decreasing. The nadir came under President Donald Trump, which is when Abbas began talking about a diplomatic process in which the U.S. could be a participant but could no longer be the sole overseer, and which he repeated last week in front of Putin. His hopes when President Joe Biden was elected were that the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington would be immediately reopened, that the Taylor Force Act would be swept away and past U.S. direct support to the Palestinian Authority would be resumed, and he may have even believed that there was a slight chance that the U.S. would move its embassy back to Tel Aviv. None of these things have occurred, and thus Abbas now speaks about Biden and the current administration as if they have done nothing for the Palestinians and are barely an improvement over the Trump era.
Despite Abbas’ grave disappointment, he blithely glosses over the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance that Biden has restored to the West Bank, the hundreds of millions of dollars once again flowing to UNRWA, the tens of millions of dollars to civil society groups working with Palestinians. He blithely glosses over the visit Biden made to East Jerusalem unaccompanied by his Israeli hosts—which was a first for any American president—in order to announce tens of millions of dollars in assistance to the most important Palestinian public health institution, his meeting with Abbas himself in Bethlehem where he reiterated American support for a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed land swaps, and the fact that the U.S. is the only actor with any genuine influence with Israel that continuously and repeatedly presses the Israeli government on its policy toward the Palestinians. More importantly, Abbas blithely glosses over the fact that this is about the upper limit of what Biden is able to do under U.S. law and in combination with what current politics in Congress will support. The reason for that, of course, is that the PA continues to make prisoner and martyr payments in contravention of U.S. law, and despite its own repeated pledges to do so, has not yet taken any significant steps toward reforming this system. The lion’s share of Abbas’ disappointment lies in his own failure to live up to his commitments to the U.S. rather than the other way around. The fact that the U.S. continues to find ways to support so many Palestinians directly and support institutions that serve Palestinians despite being unable to spend even one dollar that directly benefits the PA is actually rather remarkable. Yet Abbas’ approach is that the U.S. is untrustworthy, undependable, and pales in comparison to the Palestinians’ supposed reliable and beneficent friend in Moscow.
In 2021, the U.S. pledged $338.4 million to UNRWA, making the U.S. the largest UNRWA donor at almost twice the amount of Germany, the next largest donor. Russia’s contribution to UNRWA was $2 million. The U.S. has contributed $20 million this year alone to the U.N. World Food Program for the West Bank and Gaza, while Russia has contributed $25 million over the past ten years. The U.S. leads the NATO mission to train the Palestinian Authority Security Forces through the U.S. Security Coordination in Jerusalem, while Russia’s assistance consists of the vague and nebulous “military training” that Abbas referenced last week. The idea that Russia is the Palestinians’ great patron while the U.S. sits on its hands flies in the face of all evidence. Nevertheless, Abbas decided to sit down with Putin and thank him for scraps while treating tangible American help as if it does not exist.
Notwithstanding Abbas’ perpetual anger with the U.S. for not doing enough, the U.S. assists the Palestinians in ways large and small. The reason that Israel released the results of the investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s death was because the U.S. did not let the issue drop. The reason that Israel offered compensation to Omar Assad’s family is because the U.S. repeatedly raised the issue. Those who follow the State Department’s daily press briefings know that the Biden administration continues to call attention to the rising number of Palestinians shot and killed by the IDF and has conspicuously declined to endorse the strength of Israeli evidence about Palestinian NGOs being PFLP fronts. Some will dismiss all of these items as mere words or doing the bare minimum, but they all have an impact to the Palestinians’ benefit. None of these things become easier to do when Abbas is bashing the U.S. as Putin nods along, and treating the U.S. as implacably hostile to the Palestinian cause is not going to make American policymakers want to expend more energy or political capital standing up for the interests of a PA that rarely expresses appreciation for anything. When Israeli officials in the past criticized President Barack Obama or insulted John Kerry, outrage was rightly quick to follow, so what should the response be when Abbas does not content himself to go after individual American leaders but declares the U.S. as entirely worthless for his purposes?
The administration described itself as “deeply disappointed” at Abbas’ comments. It is not American disappointment that should worry Abbas, but the prospect that he will turn his own words into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking that the road to Palestinian statehood and success lies in flattering Moscow while heaping scorn on Washington demonstrates a depth of delusion that is surprising even for the low standard of diplomatic competence that Abbas has established. He is fortunate that the U.S., with rare exceptions, tends not to operate by setting policy dictated by schoolyard insults, but there is also no universe in which Abbas’ shortsighted assessment of who actually expends any energy looking out for the Palestinians is going to improve his lot and the lot of the people he so poorly serves.