Israel awaits 'pragmatic' Abbas heir, but may be disappointed

by Guillaume Lavallee
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Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, 84, has slammed a US plan for Middle East peace as violating Palestinian rights

Israel has pitched the controversial US Middle East peace plan as an offer for a future, "pragmatic" Palestinian leader, saying it was always going to be rejected by president Mahmud Abbas.

But Israeli officials may be disappointed if they think an Abbas successor will look more favourably on President Donald Trump's deeply controversial terms.

On Tuesday, 84-year-old Abbas, known informally as Abu Mazen, slammed Trump's map of a future Palestinian state as "Swiss cheese".

"Who among you would accept such a state?" he asked the UN Security Council.

The plan endorses Israeli sovereignty over the hotly disputed city of Jerusalem and greenlights its annexation of key parts of the occupied West Bank.

In return, the Palestinians would receive $50 billion of investment over the next decade.

Israeli officials have hailed the plan as "historic", but according to a poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 94 percent of Palestinians reject it.

For a start, the plan's vision for Jerusalem as the "indivisible" capital of the Jewish state is unacceptable for Palestinians and Muslims worldwide, as the city is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque -- the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

The proposal also concedes Israeli annexation of the strategic Jordan Valley and settlements elsewhere in the occupied West Bank.

The resulting Palestinian state would be demilitarised and cut off from those territories.

Israel's UN ambassador, Danny Danon, called on Abbas to support the plan.

"Even if you have criticisms of specific elements of the plan you must embrace its spirit, this new pragmatic approach to resolve the conflict, but Abbas refuses to be pragmatic," he told the Security Council.

"He will never be a partner for true peace."

- 'The train is running' -

The plan "is not something that was channelled toward Abu Mazen but towards his successor who we don't know yet who he is," Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan centre on the Middle East at Tel Aviv University, told AFP.

"It could be a younger person with a fresh approach."

With the Palestinians rejecting the plan, Washington has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to rush towards annexation, fearing it could set the Palestinian territories aflame.

Seeking to reassure his close ally in the White House whilst keeping settler voters onside ahead of a March general election, Netanyahu said preparations for implementation were under way but required more work.

"The Israeli team has started, the train is running and the work will be completed," he said.

Facing trial over corruption, Netanyahu will be fighting for his political life on March 2.

His main challenger, former army chief Benny Gantz, has also endorsed Trump's plan.

But Gantz's partner in the centrist Blue and White alliance, Yair Lapid, agreed the plan may only win Palestinian acceptance once Abbas is gone.

"We may have to wait for the post-Abu Mazen era," said Lapid, tipped as a possible foreign minister if Gantz forms the next government.

"Instead of a policy, instead of putting something of their own on the table, what we have is a grumpy old man who shouts and curses all the time," Lapid told journalists.

- 'Nobody more moderate' -

But with the Palestinian public overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, Israelis expecting Abbas's successor to discuss it may be in for a shock.

Pollster PCPSR said that in a Palestinian election, Abbas would win 44 percent of the vote compared to 49 percent for Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the militant Islamist movement Hamas.

Abbas's Fatah party leads the West Bank, while Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, but is seeking to extend its hold to the West Bank.

Fatah icon Marwan Barghouti would also be a strong contender -- although he is behind bars in Israel, serving a life sentence for his role in anti-Israeli attacks.

"The Israelis who called for someone more pragmatic than Abbas are delusional," Khalil Shikaki, head of the pollster PCPSR, told AFP.

"There is no Palestinian leadership that is more pragmatic, more moderate more dovish than Abbas," he said.

"Every other Palestinian leader will be much tougher."

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, 84, has slammed a US plan for Middle East peace as violating Palestinian rights

A map showing US President Donald Trump's peace plan

Jailed Palestinian figure Marwan Barghuti (L) from Abbas's Fatah movement has become an icon of Palestinian resistance, seen here alongside late leader Yasser Arafat on Israel's controversial separation wall