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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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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.

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