Is Abbas trying to ride wave of violence?

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Aaron David Miller: Recent attacks in Israel are changing the rhythm of life in capital

Abbas may find himself weakened at home and abroad by terror attacks, Miller writes

CNN  — 

If you think 2016 is going to be a better year for Israel and the Palestinians, I’d advise lying down and waiting until the feeling passes.

Two days before Christmas, an Israeli Jew was fatally stabbed and another injured and later accidentally killed by security forces in an attack by Palestinian youths. The incident was the latest of the some 120 attacks and attempted assaults that, since October, had left 19 Israelis dead – and several times that number of Palestinians. And now, on the first day of the new year, two people were killed and at least seven hurt in a shooting at a pub in Tel Aviv.

The motive and perpetrator of the January 1 killings remain unclear. But regardless of who is responsible, it will only add to the current uneasiness in Israel. And it will not alter the growing sense among both Israelis and Palestinians that this latest wave of violence – unplanned, unprofessional, largely carried out by young Palestinians from areas Israel has controlled since 1967 – represents a new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that is harder to preempt, control and contain.

Aaron David Miller

But are both sides equally invested in controlling this recent violence?

Clearly, Israel has a stake in doing so. The attacks are changing the rhythm of life in Israel’s capital and presenting a hard-line Israeli government, one that is supposed to be adept at security matters, a seemingly impossible challenge. But it is less clear that the Palestinians, and especially the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, have quite the same stake in controlling it.

Having dealt with the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat for more than a decade, I can say without much doubt that violence and terror were tools he never truly abandoned. Abbas, on the other hand, has never been a man of the gun. A year ago, for example, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service reportedly testified flat out that Abbas doesn’t encourage terror openly or under the table. Indeed, part of the reason that Hamas continues to resonate among Palestinians is precisely because Abbas isn’t perceived to be a struggler, and so lacks street credibility.

But Abbas may now see some merit in playing to the emotions of the street.

The latest wave of Palestinian terror and violence, much of it being carried out using knives and vehicles, has created a situation where Abbas can neither restrain the killings nor engage in a systematic public or private campaign to condemn them. It’s a new form of terror, one that carries both benefits and risks.

For a start, Abbas has no real strategy on Palestinian statehood and is without allies. The reality is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no real interest in a negotiated outcome that has Israel returning to the June 1967 borders or a division of Jerusalem. His plan is to bob and weave, stay in power, avoid a coalition crisis and wait out the end of the Obama administration in anticipation of a more pro-Israeli successor. The Arab states, meanwhile, are more focused on containing Iran and the Sunni jihadis than pushing Palestinian statehood. And the Americans have their hands full with Syria, Vladimir Putin and ISIS; the Obama administration has all but acknowledged that a breakthrough toward a two-state solution isn’t possible. So, Abbas’ campaign for international recognition of Palestinian statehood has stalled.

But even as Abbas fails to make progress in foreign capitals, it is also clear that the current violence reflects his weakness and loss of authority domestically. Many of the attacks have been carried out by Palestinians too young to have clear memories of the disaster that was the second intifada, which took place from September 2000 until 2005. And to them, Abbas is nothing more than an empty suit. Indeed, a recent Palestinian poll suggests that Abbas would lose a presidential election to a Hamas candidate and that Palestinians have little faith in either Abbas or the Palestinian Authority. The poll showed two-thirds believing that an armed intifada better serves Palestinian goals than negotiations. The violence therefore reflects where the street is.

With the political winds blowing in favor of violence, and no prospect of negotiations or ending the Israeli occupation, Abbas is now walking a fine line. He won’t order Palestinian security forces to crush Palestinian protests, probably fearing that a general uprising or third intifada could expose his utter weakness and open opportunities for his Hamas rivals. But he also won’t engage in a systematic campaign of condemnation, nor try to condition the public to see the risks of this terror, because he would lose what little authority and credibility he has. (And it is important to remember that Abbas anyway probably views these attacks fundamentally differently than the Israelis – as the desperate acts of deeply angry and frustrated youths, rather than straightforward terrorism).

Finally, whatever the downsides of the almost daily attacks, Abbas knows that the violence serves to remind Israel and the international community that there’s a price to be paid for maintaining the status quo. What clouds this picture further is that the recent violence is qualitatively different from previous waves. Unlike the mass suicide terror of Hamas or al-Aqsa brigades during the second intifada, these are deemed by most Palestinians – and perhaps many within the Arab world and even the international community – as unplanned acts born of frustration by young kids. That could make it more acceptable to Abbas, the Palestinian community and others who have warned of the boiling cauldron that the absence of a solution has created.

None of this, of course, will change the balance of power on the ground, inject more urgency into the push for a two-state solution or ultimately benefit the Palestinian cause. Abbas is riding a tiger much as Arafat did during the second intifada. But his situation is infinitely worse – Arafat actually used the violence to press then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to improve his terms for a settlement at the end of 2000 and the Americans to deepen their involvement. This time around, the Palestinian leader is unlikely to succeed at either.

As a result of all this, Abbas may find himself weakened at home and abroad by terror attacks that he cannot ride to popularity, but that he has no ability to contain, either.

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