Abbas’ Current Goals
In South Korea, President Barack Obama signaled that America is abandoning – at least for the time being – its efforts to mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As John Kerry told a Senate Committee last week, the negotiations just went “poof”. Interestingly, Obama focused on Abbas’ proposed Fatah-Hamas deal as the final straw that necessitated a pause in the peace process which he, in his usual mild use of language, called “unhelpful”, thus echoing Netanyahu’s suspension of the talks because of the deal with Hamas. But Obama noted it was but the latest move. Further, he also made the point that he was not referring only to the PLO because he explicitly said that neither side had demonstrated the political will to make a deal, a reference perhaps to Netanyahu’s refusal to release the last group of prisoners unless the talks were continued, a factor that Obama had cited earlier as “unhelpful” as well as the initiation of 700 new housing tenders in Gilo, Jerusalem, though often referred to as West Bank permits.
The emphasis is important because, in a hearing before a Senate committee earlier this month, John Kerry seemed to pin the blame primarily on the Israelis. Though Kerry did the usual and asserted that both sides bore responsibility because of “unhelpful” actions, he suggested that the precipitating catalyst for what was then the possible breakdown of the talks was Israel’s announcement of 700 new housing units in an area of Jerusalem across the 1967 lines. By describing the permits as being for Jewish settlement and referring to the area as territory the Palestinians claim for a future state, he suggested that Israel was taking even more land from the Palestinians. These permits were for homes in Gilo, a Jewish part of Jerusalem, although indeed on the other side of the old Green Line. By omitting both that the fact that this was an area Israel had excluded from the freeze in re-embarking on the peace talks and/or that it was an area to be counted against the territory to be transferred to the Palestinians as a quid pro quo, the link with expansionist illegal settlement activity had been made.
Further, as a result of remarks Kerry made on Friday in a closed meeting to the Trilateral Commission, Kerry was reported in Haaretz yesterday by Barak Ravid as having considered making his own proposal for a two-state solution. Kerry warned that if Israel did not move quickly towards a two-state solution, it risked being more widely branded and becoming an ‘apartheid’ state – a very exceptional term for an American statesman to use in application to Israel and in conflict with the Obama doctrine on Israel. The use of the word was so toxic that Kerry was forced to swallow that word and said yesterday that he had chosen the “wrong word”. Kerry insisted – and I agree – that “a two-state solution is the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” Further, Kerry, fearless about the difficulties of prognostication, predicted that a freeze in the peace talks could bring about violent conflagration in the West Bank. He based his predictions on a psychological-political analysis: “People grow so frustrated with their lot in life that they begin to take other choices and go to dark places they’ve been before, which forces confrontation.” But his “apartheid” remark was a prediction and not a description of the present state of affairs.
Kerry, like Obama, blamed both sides for the negotiations coming to a dead end but he mentioned Netanyahu specifically for announcing plans to build 14 thousand (sic!) new housing units in settlements. Kerry suggested a change of leaders on either side might allow a breakthrough, but unlike Obama, he clearly seemed to lean towards blaming Netanyahu. This is in spite of the fact that the political leadership in Israel was, in an unprecedented way, united in blaming Abbas. Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were at one with Housing Minister Uri Ariel in placing the blame squarely on the head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his advisers.
Do we blame Abbas primarily, as Obama suggested, or do we primarily blame Netanyahu, as Kerry implied? Could (not would) a change in either leader possibly lead to a breakthrough? There is a prior question. Why did neither party get past the obstacles to make a deal? What really happened and why was Abbas (tomorrow, Netanyahu) unwilling to engage in serious negotiations?
Abbas made four different moves in the lead up to the terminal date for the initial deadline on the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks mediated by the United States:
- 1 April – he applied to join 15 international agencies on behalf of Palestine, an initiative in breach of the agreement but the applications specifically excluded the International Court and claimed to do so in response to Israel’s failure to release the prisoners as per the agreement
- 19 April – he threatened to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, give the keys to the West Bank back to Israel and allow Israel to administer the West Bank directly
- 23 April – he Palestinian National Reconciliation Agreement was signed between Fatah and Hamas implementing two prior agreements negotiated and signed respectively in Cairo in May 2011 and in Doha signed by Mahmoud Abbas himself and Khaled Mashal on February 2012; the new agreement provided for an interim technical government after five weeks with legislative and executive elections to follow within six months.
- 28 April – n advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday, Abbas issued a statement calling the Holocaust the most heinous crime of the modern era, a stark contrast with Hamas that went out of its way to declare the Holocaust as a made-up lie..
The application to join the fifteen international organizations, but excluding the international court, was intended to tweak both the Israeli and American noses without putting either so totally out of joint as to risk the financial support coming from either party. The threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and give the keys to the West Bank back to Israel was just grandstanding and was so characterized by Saeb Ekrat, the PA chief negotiator. However, the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas was a step of a wholly different order because Hamas has not renounced violence as required by the Oslo Accords, still refuses to recognize Israel and refused to enter into negotiations with Israel for a permanent peace. Finally, Abbas would not only reject many of the conclusions of his own PhD thesis on the Holocaust, but would further differentiate his position from that of Hamas by his remarks because Hamas claims that the Holocaust is a myth.
How could Abbas suck and blow at the same time? If he was sincere about wanting to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, why reconcile with Hamas at this time? Abbas argued that the agreement permits only the PA to negotiate international treaties. Hamas may opt for violence in principle but as part of the agreement would have to surrender any resort to practice. Hamas would not be forced to recognize let alone negotiate with Israel but would not denounce or undercut such negotiations. Further, this was no different than the Americans meeting with the Lebanese government even though that government includes Hezbollah that Washington dubs a terrorist organization. If Washington could deal with a unity government in Lebanon, Israel and the United States could deal with a unity government for Palestine. In any case, any agreement would have to be endorsed in a referendum. So the agreement, rather than undermining continued talks, actually strengthened Abbas’ hand because he could be seen as speaking on behalf of all Palestinians.
Hamas had strong reasons for implementing a unity agreement at this time. It was being outflanked on the terrorist front by Islamic Jihad. The situation in Gaza was becoming more precarious every day. With Cairo enforcing the closure of the tunnels ruthlessly as it continued to oppress Hamas’ allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was being forced to reach out. Besides, its main sponsor, Iran, was negotiating now with the Americans and seeking to open Iran up somewhat to the West. Hamas could no longer afford its stubborn isolationism.
This did not mean that all Hamas or Fatah supporters endorsed the new efforts to forge a united front. Ibrahimi Hamamai, the writer and supporter of Hamas, continued to denounce the PA and Fatah as “Israel’s agents” and insisted that reconciliation with either was treasonous and the PA was just a collection of collaborators. Jibril Rajoub, Deputy Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee and Chair of the PA Olympic Committee backed Hamami rather than Abbas and called the Israeli government a racist and fascist regime worse than Hitler in its oppression and use of concentration and extermination camps.
This is the main explanation why Abbas could not continue the talks at this time. He had to outflank his rivals, particularly Mohammad Dahlan who was waiting in the wings. He needed to strengthen his domestic position and what better time to do so but when he was standing up to both the Americans and the Israelis. He had already conceded that he would bend on the issue of Palestinian return. The last and greatest sticking block was East Jerusalem and the Old City. Already, throwing of stones and unrest on the Temple Mount had heated up over the last week. If he has to walk the fine line between not alienating the Americans lest he forfeit their financial support and rebuild his support among the Palestinians, then he had to appear strong in facing down both the Americans and Israelis but not in such a way as to cut the material support beneath his feet.
This was in preparation for three very different future possible scenarios: 1) an historic deal in which he agrres to make a deal over Jerusalem by taking East Jerusalem in exchange for internationalizing the Temple Mount and possibly conceding the Old City to Israel, a deal not possible with Netanyahu in power and one he does not seem likely to make; 2) a final push to get Israel to concede both the Old City, excluding the Jewish Quarter, in return for a final peace deal; 3) further procrastination since he recognizes no peace deal is possible for which he could get sufficient support.
Abbas’s demand for the right of return had scuttled the Camp David talks. Olmert offered him more than anyone befor he left office and Abbas could still not agree. Abbas is still not in a position to make a deal that woud win sufficient support. So he shows he can be resolute and helps scuttle the talks. This could be read as deceptive practice or not negotiating in good faith or else as negotiating as best he can with a very weak hand while clearly leaving the door open to future negotiations, but, from his perspective, hopefully with a stronger foundation.