As US Secretary of State John Kerry’s self-imposed nine-month deadline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations approaches, evidence is growing that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ true objective may not be to strike a deal that would give his people a state, but rather to run away from such a pact and the difficult compromises it would entail.
Meanwhile, he hopes to blame the failure on Israeli “intransigence”. For the benefit of future generations of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the stability of the region, the international community should resist giving Abbas the diplomatic leeway to do so.
We have, of course, seen this Palestinian strategy played out before. In his autobiography, former US President Bill Clinton blamed former PA President Yasser Arafat for failing to accept successive Israeli and US peace proposals, calling this “an error of historic proportions.”
More recently, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in her memoir that in 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians – which would have made east Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state and given the Palestinians 94% of the West Bank with land swaps to make up for the rest – was so generous it was “unbelievable”. Yet Abbas walked away without a counter-offer.
US President Barack Obama is now at risk of falling into the same trap as his predecessors if he doesn’t learn from their mistakes.
In an interview last month, President Obama stressed the necessity for Israel of a two-state solution that provides Israel with security and the Palestinians with the “dignity of a state”. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, devoted much of his very warm and friendly speech to the Knesset on March 12 to imagining, in glowing terms, “what this land would be like if a two state solution was actually achieved”.
The potential flaw with both Obama and Cameron’s reasoning is that there is the tendency implicit in it to assume that the primary Palestinian aspiration is statehood alongside Israel.
In reality, rather than embrace statehood, the Palestinian leadership have, in moments of candour, painted statehood in the West Bank and Gaza as, at best, a serious potential threat to Palestinian interests.
In briefings conducted during his recent AIJAC-sponsored visit to Australia, widely respected Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari recalled how Arafat once referred to statehood as a “sovereign cage”, and how Abbas’ key advisor Ahmad Samih Khalidi called Palestinian statehood “largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinians’ worst historical enemies, Israel and… the US.”
According to this view, the creation of a responsible, fully-functioning, internationally-recognised Palestinian state would simply undercut key Palestinian demands – particularly regarding refugees and their so-called “right of return.”
Given all of this, Palestinian efforts to rule out recognising Israel as a Jewish homeland or make concessions regarding the refugee issue may make sense from their perspective. However, honest brokers in the peace process should not pander to this ruthless strategy which makes political pawns of millions of vulnerable Palestinians. Rather, they must see these entrenched positions for what they are – deal-breakers that are antithetical to peace. And if they genuinely care about both the plight of Palestinians and achieving a two-state resolution, they must act accordingly – stark Palestinian refusals to make the compromises everyone knows are essential to peace must not be ignored or rewarded, as they have been in the past.
Particularly troubling is Abbas’ backtracking on past acknowledgements that peace would enshrine Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
His stance is in marked contrast to the statements of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat – who conceded as long ago as 1988 that Israel should be acknowledged as a “Jewish state.” In interviews from 2004, Arafat talked openly about a two-state outcome between “a Palestinian state and the Jewish state”.
In itself, the largely-symbolic recognition issue may not be the most important barrier to peace – Abbas’ recent statements insisting that the legally baseless “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is an individual right which no Palestinian leader can bargain over do more to make real peace impossible. But the fact that he has reversed a point Arafat conceded decades ago appears indicative of a determination not to accept any reasonable two-state peace deal.
Unhelpfully, the Arab League compounded the damage of Abbas’ reversal of Arafat’s policy by declaring its complete support for Abbas’ obstinacy ahead of his meeting with President Obama in Washington on March 17.
The reality is that Abbas lacks solid support from his own people and, in the wake of the split between Hamas-led Gaza and the Fatah-led West Bank and the lack of elections, has questionable legitimacy to make major decisions on their behalf. He therefore needs the support of the Arab League to even consider making any of the necessary concessions for peace with Israel – especially in light of the long history of the PA inciting Palestinians to believe that any talk of such concessions amounts to treason.
The Arab League’s announcement has therefore dealt a blow to those who have hoped the group might begin to play a more constructive role in forging a two-state peace.
What does Abbas have to gain from rejecting peace? In the past, after the Palestinians rejected a peace proposal, international pressure increased on Israel under the mistaken belief that Israel hadn’t been generous enough or was somehow refusing to end the “occupation.”
Over 20 years since Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, the lesson of the failures of the peace process is that the principal obstacle to peace has not been settlements, nor Jerusalem, water or even refugees. Rather, it remains the open question whether the Palestinians, as a unified nation, can ultimately accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state anywhere between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.