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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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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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