Could Mahmoud Abbas, Who Didn’t Go To Bahrain, Now Meet His Comeuppance?


As is well known, at the recent meeting in Manama, Bahrain, the Americans presented the economic part of their peace plan. It was unprecedented in the generosity of what was being offered the Palestinians: more than $50 billion in aid, with $27.5 billion of it going to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the remaining billions going to Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. It is the largest aid package for a single recipient in history. Compare, for example, the Marshall Plan, which resulted in $12 billion ($100 billion in 2018 dollars) being shared by 17 countries in Western Europe.

Neither Mahmoud Abbas nor any other Palestinian official showed up in Bahrain. They ranted for weeks against the $50 billion dollar economic plan, proclaimed they would accept no economic plan before their political demands were met, even if it meant that the “Palestinian people” had to continue to suffer high unemployment and levels of poverty in both the West Bank and Gaza.

To the Americans, it made more sense to offer the Palestinians tangible economic benefits first, to let them see how their lives could be substantially improved, and perhaps their businessmen would then have the desire and the wherewithal to begin to cooperate with Israeli businesses as well. In this view, economics must precede, not come after, a political settlement, which, given the Palestinian intransigence and Abbas’s refusal to deal, will be a long time coming.

Mahmoud Abbas does not have to worry about his own economic well-being. He and two of his sons have, through corruption and the exploitation of his political connections, managed to accumulate a  family fortune of $400 million. So he lacks the urgency to improve the lot of the people he pretends to care about. He told Palestinian businessmen to stay away from Bahrain, to wait for that ever-receding political settlement, a veritable will-o’-the-wisp, between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, that must precede  hat $50 billion handout — quite undeserved — that Jared Kushner was prepared to raise for the benefit of the Palestinians.

Not all of the Palestinian businessmen did as Abbas demanded. Some actually thought that there might be useful contacts to be made in Bahrain, both with Gulf Arabs and with the Israelis (businessmen, journalists, not government officials), in attendance. So they took a chance and went off to Manama.

Soon after the Bahrain conference ended, the Palestinian Authority arrested one of the  Palestinian businessmen who had attended the US-led economic conference.

He was identified as Salah Abu Miala from the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank.

“Salah attended a wedding party for a family member yesterday and then he disappeared. We haven’t seen him since,” the man’s brother, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters. He said that police forces had not shown up at Abu Miala’s home.

The Palestinian Authority’s security service did not respond to requests for comment, but Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari, who also attended the conference in Manama, said by phone: “Salah’s son spoke to me by phone and he told me his father was arrested.”

A phone call from Reuters to Abu Miala’s mobile phone was answered by the same son, who said his father could not come to the phone.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could not be reached for comment.

The handful of Palestinian businessmen who attended the Bahrain workshop have been branded as “collaborators” by some in the Palestinian leadership, which boycotted the conference.

The US embassy in Israel declined to comment on Abu Miala. Haaretz  said that another Palestinian businessman who had attended Manama managed to evade arrest.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have refused to deal with the Trump administration for 18 months, accusing it of bias toward Israel.

Trump’s team, headed by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, launched its $50 billion economic outline for Israeli-Palestinian peace on Tuesday in Bahrain, saying the investment program for the Palestinians would be followed by a political plan to end the decades-old conflict.

But their peace bid has been met with broad rejection among the Palestinians and the Arab world, mainly because Trump has so far not embraced the Palestinian quest for statehood.

Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab states that have peace agreements with Israel, attended the conference. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who also attended, said they would not endorse a plan that fails to meet Palestinian core demands.

It is unsurprising, though disappointing, that several Arab states that are known to have good, if mainly covert, relations with Israel, especially in the sharing of intelligence on the Iranian threat, still are insisting they will not endorse any peace plan that does not meet “the core demands” (on Jerusalem, borders, return of “refugees”) of the Palestinians.

The arrest, however brief,  of the businessman Abu Miala, who actually has been a successful entrepreneur and provided jobs for Palestinians, ought to be publicized. He is not, as Mahmoud Abbas has branded the handful of Palestinian businessmen who were brave enough to go to Bahrain, a “collaborator.” He is not, unlike Mahmoud Abbas, someone who has amassed a fortune through corruption and contacts. He is trying, as are several of his fellow businessmen who also defied Abbas, to improve the economic lot of his fellow Arabs.

In the end, it was Mahmoud Abbas who blinked. Abu Miala was set free after being held by the P.A. for only one day. Abbas and his men, having sensed the unpopularity of their move against the businessman, decided not to risk a possible open challenge, on the street, to their authority,

How many of those enduring the heavy-handed rule of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank now sense that with the release of Abu Miala, Abbas is revealing weakness? Perhaps it’s time for a different Great March, a  march against Abbas and his grasping rule. For those both enraged and brave enough to take part in such a protest march against the P.A. for its rejection of the economic plan, a walk from Hebron to Ramallah, with chants of “we can’t wait” — a reference to the 50 billion dollars discussed in Bahrain that Abbas refuses even to consider — ought to be enough to embarrass Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. People who know little else about Kushner’s plan know that they need jobs, they need money. If that means a public display of disaffection with the Palestinian Authority, so what? At this point what do they have to lose? That $50 billion remains tantalizingly out of reach because of the cruel intransigence of Mahmoud Abbas. Even a few billion dollars of that fabled sum of $50 billion is tempting to the poorest Palestinians, not all of whom agree that the Palestinians should wait for that “political settlement” that may not come at all, because it’s not possible for the Palestinians to relinquish their dreams of Jihad. From his luxurious villa in Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas chooses to strike an attitude of defiance that, to the Palestinian street, may no longer go over well.

Abbas is increasingly unpopular because the Palestinians have been finding out about his (and his sons’) accumulated fortune. At a time of great economic distress for the Palestinians, documents were leaked online by a group of anonymous whistleblowers known as “Against the Current,” showing that in 2017, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had quietly agreed to increase monthly salaries of ministers from $3,000 to $5,000, as well as boosting the prime minister’s monthly salary from $4,000 to $6,000. Those salaries were kept secret, but finally had to be suspended after the posting of the salary raises online caused an uproar this spring.The suspension of those raises has not diminished the fury felt at Abbas and his fellow self-dealing ministers.

After all this, would Abbas order his police to smash such a march for economic justice by fellow Palestinians, possibly led by some of the very businessmen who defied him and went to Bahrain? These businessmen are only asking for financial capital in order to invest in human capital — that is, in the “Palestinian people” whose interests Mahmoud Abbas pretends to defend and so cruelly ignores. Among the signs the marchers might wish to carry there should be this one: “$400 million for Mahmoud, Tarek, and Yasser Abbas, 0 for us!” The unemployed and impoverished on the West Bank and in Gaza can’t wait until Abbas judges the political climate is right; they need to receive some of those billions now, and not in some impossibly distant future. Another sign marker might carry is the simple message: “O Mahmoud, where did the $1.3 billion go?” This is a reference to a well-known charge made by another PA official, the former security minister Mohammed Dahlan, who has claimed that 1.3 billion dollars vanished from the Palestinian Investment Fund since it was turned over to Abbas’ control in 2005. The Palestinians are asking Abbas not for a Return on Investment, but a Return of Investment; they want those $1.3 billion dollars given back.

If Abbas were to turn his police loose on the marchers, can he be sure they would obey his orders to attack their fellow Palestinians, with whom the poorly-paid police may readily identify? He knows  — and the signs of the marchers will remind him — that there has been discontent about his own family’s wealth, and about his remaining in office so long; Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year term as president. That term ran out in 2009; he has cancelled all elections since, and ten years later, Abbas is still president, with no end in sight. If instead of suppressing those marchers the police were to join them, and turn against Abbas, his goose is cooked. The Great March of Return in Gaza has been petering out, the incendiary kites causing some damage to Israeli farmland, but with little else to show for all that effort. In the West Bank, it’s time for a Great March of Return Of Investment, one that Mahmoud Abbas won’t be able to stop, and that may bring him, deservedly, down.

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