The Palestinian president has been speaking in increasingly belligerent tones in recent weeks, accusing Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza and calling on Palestinians to defend a contested Jerusalem holy site “by any means.”
The heightened rhetoric is a departure for the normally staid Mahmoud Abbas - and an apparent sign of desperation as he tries to halt a slide in his own popularity following this summer’s war between Israel and the Islamic militant 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, and a bumpy attempt to win new recognition at the United Nations.
Fiery rhetoric is an easy way to appeal to his public at a time when many Palestinians believe Israel is not serious about negotiating a partition deal that would end half a century of Israeli military occupation.
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’ security forces beat West Bank protesters marching in support of a Muslim-run holy site that is widely perceived by Palestinians to be under threat of a Jewish takeover.
Just hours later, Abbas urged activists from his Fatah movement to defend the shrine “by any means” against “cattle herds of (Jewish) settlers” who he said “have no right to enter and desecrate it.”
The Al Aqsa Mosque is Islam’s third holiest shrine and also Judaism’s holiest site as the home of the biblical Jewish Temple.
Last month, Abbas accused Israel in a speech at the U.N. of committing “genocide” during the Gaza war in which some 2,100 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians, along with 72 people on the Israeli side.
Scarred by memories of the Holocaust, Israel, along with the U.S., condemned his choice of words.
Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu said Abbas’ lack of a political vision is behind his new populist tone and attempts to tap into a consensus issue such as Al Aqsa.
“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 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, which had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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, an uprising leader who is in prison in Israel.
Hamas’ popularity soared during the Gaza war, after it fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israel, though support has since dropped somewhat.
Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, was also forced to hand over the reins, at least nominally, to an Abbas-led unity government that is coordinating international reconstruction aid. Still, the heavily armed militant group remains the main force on the ground.
The unity government has so far taken only small steps toward asserting control in Gaza, largely because Abbas remains suspicious of Hamas.
His hesitation in Gaza is part of what some see as an unwillingness to shift gears, despite the collapse of his long-running strategy of trying to win Palestinian statehood through U.S.-led negotiations with Israel.
That approach seemed discredited for good after a nine-month round of talks ended in acrimony this spring, with prospects for a resumption remote.
Since then, Abbas has signaled that he would opt for a more confrontational approach toward Israel and the U.S. by seeking broader international recognition for Palestinian statehood.
The U.N. set the stage for such moves in 2012 by accepting “Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - lands Israel captured in 1967 - as a non-member observer state.
As a next step, Abbas is to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution setting a November 2016 deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands.
If the council fails to take action, the state of Palestine could seek membership in more international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, where it could seek war crimes charges against Israel, officials have said.
However, some argue that Abbas remains reluctant to clash with the U.S. and Israel.
“I can’t see a strong political will to change the strategy,” said analyst George Giacaman. He said he believes Abbas is trying only to use the threat of U.N. action to improve his leverage with Israel.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki denied a lack of political vision. “We have a clear strategy that has resulted in a lot of successes,” Malki said, adding that Israel “loses strength every day and becomes more isolated in the world.”
But even the Security Council bid, at best a tactical move, seems to be hitting a dead end.
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, the Palestinians are two votes short.
Buttu said the international community hasn’t offered Abbas broad support for any alternatives to negotiations with Israel, making it riskier for him to try to adopt a new approach.
At the same time, he has created an increasingly authoritarian climate at home, stifling debate about strategy and political succession, she said.
“Not only that he (Abbas) is not tolerating dissent,” she said. “We are now stuck with a system without clarity of what is happening next.”