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The Third Man

Missing from the Bibi vs. Barack drama in Washington was the man who really torpedoed the peace process, Mahmoud Abbas

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The week of dueling speeches by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu was great political drama, but a key character was missing from the scene: Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. While Abbas was absent, it was in fact his creation on April 27 of a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas that provided the backdrop for what we saw in Washington. So an analysis of what happened last week must begin not with Bibi’s calculations or Obama’s, but those of Abbas.

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Mahmoud Abbas is 76 years old and will retire from politics next year, having announced that he will not seek reelection. His tenure as chairman of both the Fatah movement and the PLO (which began when Arafat died in late 2004) has been disastrous, for he lost first the 2006 elections and then control of Gaza to Hamas. A man without charisma or great political courage, he was never a serious candidate to make the difficult compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require and then defend himself against charges of treason and betrayal. To the generous peace offer made by Ehud Olmert in 2008, Abbas responded with silence. It is true that life on the West Bank has improved considerably during his tenure as Palestinian Authority president, but he never cared much about wearing that third hat; he left such mundane matters to PA prime minister Salam Fayyad while he jetted around the world seeking support for the Great Cause. 

Abbas thought his ship had come in when Barack Obama became president: Surely this man, so diffident about Israel, would deliver the Israeli diplomatic collapse the PLO needed. And sure enough, Obama’s tenure began with the hiring of George Mitchell (on Obama’s second day in office) and the demand for a total construction freeze by Israel​—​not only in the settlements but even in Jerusalem. Now, two years later, Mitchell is gone and Abbas has given up on Obama. In a remarkably bitter interview with Newsweek, Abbas vented his disillusionment: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said okay, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

Unwilling to make far-reaching compromises himself, and now convinced Obama would not force deep concessions on the Israelis, Abbas decided to secure his legacy a different way: through a façade of national unity. Sure, he lost the elections to Hamas and they have Gaza, but with this unity deal there would be new elections next year and​—​on paper, anyway​—​the split would be over and the Palestinian family together again. And he would deliver more: United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state through a vote to admit it to membership. So Abbas would leave office with honor. To be sure, he would always be a transitional figure between Arafat and whatever came next, and neither peace nor real statehood would be any closer. But in the realm of symbolism and rhetoric where Palestinian political life has always been lived, he could say he had never yielded an inch to the Zionists.

These developments left both Netanyahu and Obama high and dry. For Netanyahu, the Hamas deal not only meant that no negotiations were possible but also endangered the existing cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank economy had (with some Israeli help) improved steadily in the last few years, and the new American-trained PA police worked closely with Israel against terrorism​—​and especially against Hamas. It was possible to see some ways forward: handing control of more West Bank territory to the PA, strengthening PA security forces, watching a Palestinian state develop on the ground under Fayyad’s pragmatic leadership. Now that approach was gone.

And so was Obama’s push for a negotiation. The incoherence of U.S. policy is summed up in this passage from Obama’s AIPAC speech: “We know that peace demands a partner​—​which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist. .  .  . But the march to isolate Israel internationally​—​and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations​—​will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.” So Israel cannot be expected to negotiate and it must start negotiating. 

That is where the president stands after two years of involvement in Middle East peacemaking, and his problems are largely of his own making. Israel and the Palestinians had been at the table together for decades until the Obama/Mitchell/Rahm Emanuel decision to demand a total end to Israeli construction froze not the settlements but the diplomacy. Previous presidents​—​both Clinton and George W. Bush​—​had managed to gain the confidence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, while Obama is now mistrusted on all sides. 

We would not be where we are had all three men​—​Abbas, Netanyahu, Obama​—​not given up on each other, a striking failure in American diplomacy. The president’s inability to get it right was visible this past week. The pair of speeches must have been the products of intense effort at the White House, yet the errors made in his Thursday speech at the State Department required quick fixes on Sunday at AIPAC. He forgot on Thursday to mention the three “Quartet Principles” that are the preconditions for Hamas participation in government and in negotiations: abandon violence, acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, respect all previous Israel-PLO agreements. So those were added to the Sunday speech. His Thursday formulation suggested that the “1967 lines” would be Israel’s new border with some swaps agreed to by the Palestinians. Owing to protests, he had to add in his Sunday AIPAC speech that the parties “will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967”​—​while complaining that he had been deliberately misunderstood.

Meanwhile his mistreatment of the visiting Netanyahu can only have deepened the latter’s belief that Obama was irretrievably hostile. While the diplomatic niceties were observed this time (Netanyahu got to stay in Blair House, and there were plenty of photos and a TV session in the Oval Office), the fact remains that Obama gave a major Middle East speech the day before Netanyahu arrived. The message was clear: I have no interest in what you are saying and will make my views plain even before we exchange one word. Worse yet was the lack of any advance notice. The Israelis had been told days before that the Obama speech would cover the Arab Spring and say little about them, and were given only a couple of hours’ notice that, on the contrary, the president would make a significant policy statement that contradicted Israeli views. They felt​—​and they were​—​blindsided. In the Clinton and Bush administrations such major policy statements were preceded by weeks of consultations, and when a president breaks that pattern it is a deliberate and powerful message. This is the explanation for the brief tutorial in Israeli security concerns that Netanyahu held Friday in the Oval Office: The gloves were off, but it was Obama who took them off first.

The president jetted off to Europe after his AIPAC speech, and after his own speech to Congress Netanyahu went home. Washington is celebrating Memorial Day weekend, entering the summer, and watching the Republicans begin to figure out who will be their candidate in 2012. But now what? After the four dueling speeches, is there an American policy? What remains of the “peace process”?

For Abbas, the path forward seems clear. Get the U.N. vote in September; hold local elections this fall; hold parliamentary and presidential elections next year; and then retire. This requires holding the Hamas-Fatah deal together, no easy task: The last such deal, in 2007, failed in a few months and led to the Hamas coup in Gaza. But this one may last longer because it is less ambitious. It is an agreement to have an election next year, while Hamas keeps Gaza and Fatah keeps the West Bank for the interim. Fatah and Hamas hate each other no less today than they did yesterday. Their leaders have decided that the right formula for the coming year is patriotic speeches plus a U.N. vote plus an election, and in part this is their reaction to the “Arab Spring.” They need to have elections because every Arab state seems to be doing so now, and they need to keep public dissatisfaction focused on Israel lest people decide that their own rulers are the problem. 

But Abbas is in fact creating a very dangerous situation with these maneuvers. As noted, they bring into question the growing security cooperation in the West Bank. Will a PA leadership now doing deals with Hamas be willing to continue acting against it on the ground? What is to become of the American-trained police forces when Prime Minister Fayyad, who has provided leadership to them, leaves office this summer in accordance with the Hamas-Fatah agreement?

Moreover, the deal with Hamas will allow it to enter next year’s internal elections in the PLO, the body responsible for negotiating with Israel, while it also enters the PA parliamentary and presidential elections. Hamas victories would mean permanent confrontation with Israel. Once again​—​as with the emergence of Haj Amin al-Husseini in the 1920s and Yasser Arafat in the 1960s​—​Palestinians would be led by extremists and any hope of peace would be gone. Hamas and Fatah, moreover, are likely to agree on the immediate tactic of “nonviolent demonstrations” on Israel’s borders after the U.N. vote, and these could deteriorate quickly into violent confrontations. Abbas will retire happily to Amman or Doha (where he keeps homes) next year, but his true legacy to his people may be disaster.

As for President Obama, his two speeches leave one wondering about his true intentions this year and next. Perhaps the speeches were meant to set up a certain distance from Israel and enable easier negotiations with the Europeans over the coming U.N. vote. Perhaps the president has concluded that nothing good will happen in the coming year, so he meant to say his piece, stake out what he no doubt viewed as a balanced, middle-of-the-road position, and park the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a year and a half until he can get himself reelected. Surely the president knows that at least until after the Palestinian elections no negotiations are possible, but perhaps he hopes that by 2013 Hamas might have been defeated​—​or Netanyahu might have been ousted in Israel’s elections. Obama’s brief experiment in laying out an American position​—​“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”​—​brought him immediate trouble and necessitated a partial retraction, but may nevertheless be a foretaste of what is to come after reelection. He may lay out an American plan and push the parties to accept it or at least negotiate from it. If the Israelis refuse, the bitterness in today’s relations between the White House and the prime minister’s office will only deepen in an Obama second term.

All of this makes life harder for Israel and in a way easier for Prime Minister Netanyahu. When a deeply sympathetic American president asks for concessions and compromises and appears able to cajole some from the Palestinians, which was the Clinton/Rabin and Bush/Sharon combination, Israel must respond. When a president most Israelis regard as hostile pushes them while the PLO leadership turns to Hamas, most Israelis will back Netanyahu’s tough response. “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both,” Netanyahu said after the Hamas-Fatah deal was announced. Few Israelis will disagree. Netanyahu’s plans for the coming year and a half may include an early election, to capitalize on popular support for his tough defense of Israeli security in his Washington speeches. With the future of Egypt and Syria uncertain, rumblings in Jordan, and Hamas entering the PA and PLO elections next year, a policy of hanging tough may be Bibi’s best bet​—​and Israel’s as well. In addition to the considerable danger that Palestinian demonstrations after the September U.N. vote will turn violent, that vote may also bring further energy to the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement in Europe​—​perhaps even a greater danger to an Israel dependent on its export economy.

What strengthens Bibi’s hand is not that the prospects Israel faces are good, but that no alternatives appear real to most Israelis. Negotiations are out for now, and unilateral concessions in the West Bank cannot be made when the future roles of Hamas and the PA security forces are unknown. Anyway, Israelis will think, who knows what the future will bring? Maybe Obama will not be reelected. Maybe Hamas will lose the election, or the unity deal will collapse. Maybe Syria’s Assad will fall. Maybe events in Egypt or Jordan will change the American outlook. Israel faced worse situations in 1948 and ’56 and ’67 and ’73, and it survived. On May 19, while Netanyahu visited Washington, Jews there and throughout the world read the Torah portion completing the book of Leviticus and, according to tradition, stood and chanted the words from the book of Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage.” That may sum up Israeli policy for 2011 and 2012. 

If there was a symbolic moment that epitomized the events of this past week and the months that preceded it, it was not the president’s partial retractions before AIPAC. Nor was it Netanyahu’s superb speech to and rapturous reception by a joint session of Congress while the president was absent from the city. It was instead in Austin, Texas, where Salam Fayyad attended his son’s graduation from the University of Texas. While there, Fayyad suffered a mild heart attack. Well might his heart fail as he watched the direction of Palestinian politics and the continuing policy failures in Washington. Fayyad served as finance minister for the PA after 2002 and has served as prime minister since 2007, but will now be leaving office. Whether the institutions he helped build and the practices he imposed​—​from police forces fighting terror to public finances free of corruption​—​will survive is much in doubt. It is not hard to picture him in a hospital room in Texas, wondering if the effort to build a decent Palestinian state from the ground up was now to be wasted.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

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