Grant Rumley, author of "The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas," being interviewed by Moses Libitzky
Grant Rumley, author of "The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas," being interviewed by Moses Libitzky

Abbas scholar examines career of ‘boring’ Palestinian leader in S.F. talk

To hear Grant Rumley tell it, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in a difficult position.

“He has to appear to be swimming, because you can’t really tread water in Palestinian politics,” he said yesterday in San Francisco.

Rumley is the co-author of “The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas,” published seven months ago. It is being promoted as the first and only English-language biography of the Palestinian leader, and was co-written by Amir Tibon, a Haaretz reporter based in Washington, D.C.

In it, Rumley and Tibon look at the rise and waning power of a man they call “a capable bureaucrat,” and how he has survived in the high-emotion, high-stakes world of domestic Palestinian politics and international peace negotiations.

Rumley visited the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation this week to discuss his book at an event hosted by the San Francisco branch of the American Jewish Committee and the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

At the lecture, Rumley took several dozen attendees into a deep-dive look at Abbas the man, but questions from the audience kept the event focused on the ever-vital question of the future of Palestinian-Israel relations and peace talks.

On Abbas, who refused to be interviewed for the book unless he had editorial control over it — a stipulation that was rejected — Rumley was blunt.

“He is quite a boring figure,” he said. “He is not incredibly charismatic.”

Rumley said Abbas had always been on the side of nonviolent action and negotiation, unlike his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. At the same time, Rumley said that since Abbas came to power in 2005, he has lost several political opportunities, been forced to cede political ground to Hamas and has lashed out repeatedly — not only at Israel.

“Abbas has been incredibly vindictive towards his own people,” he said.

Now, without the charisma and leverage to take the Palestinian people with him, or to counter the political power of Hamas, Abbas is in essence a lame duck. Rumley said most Palestinians are waiting for the 82-year-old, with notoriously poor health, to die. By law, if Abbas, who was recently in Baltimore for unspecified health reasons, were to die tomorrow, power would go to Hamas, which holds the parliament speakership. In reality, Rumley said, that’s not true, and Hamas knows it.

Abbas has been incredibly vindictive towards his own people.

“What they also know is the Palestinian Authority or Fatah won’t give them power for 60 days, not even 60 minutes,” he said.

Who fills the ensuing power vacuum is “the only interesting question right now in Palestinian politics,” Rumley said. “You will have all these actors, these strongmen, these people with guns, these people with money.”

Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank that defines itself as promoting policy that counters terrorism, and which is known for hawkish positions on Israel. The lecture was moderated by Piedmont resident Moses Libitzky, in his capacity as a member of the AJC Muslim Jewish Advisory Council. Libitzky recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates as part of a delegation from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Answering audience questions, Rumley addressed the impact of the growing young middle class in the Palestinian territories. It’s a group he says is increasingly interested in getting the benefits of joining modern Israel, rather than setting their hearts on the “national project” of a Palestinian state.

“We saw younger Palestinians increasingly support the one-state solution,” he said.

In Rumley’s view, the threat of having to absorb a large population of Palestinians into Israel might, ironically, be the only way Israel commits to the two-state solution. “That’s an economic burden. That’s a military burden,” he said. “That’s an emotional, psychological burden for a nation.”

But while Abbas holds onto power, all guesses are just that: conjecture. Rumley said that in spite of Palestinian dissatisfaction with Abbas, there is still a grudging respect for a leader who’s been there from the early days of Fatah, through Camp David negotiations and the Oslo accords, to the apparently upcoming “Trump Plan.”

“He is the last Palestinian who has lived that arc,” Rumley said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.