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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.

The Third Man


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. 

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