Editorial: Abbas’ Unfortunate Choice

Colin Rubenstein

 

Recently, detailed accounts were published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of the January round of Israeli-Palestinian “negotiations about negotiating” held in Amman, Jordan.

According to the Haaretz account, Israeli negotiators offered a somewhat vague but important statement of the principles which would underly a peace agreement to include a Palestinian state in the vast majority of the West Bank plus Gaza – one which Haaretz described as “similar, if not identical to that which was presented by [then Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni during the negotiations that took place in 2008 after the Annapolis Conference.”

The paper said the Israeli proposal, while not naming a figure, would likely amount to more than 90% of the West Bank. While the statement of principles put forward by the current Israeli Government differed from the 2008 offer made under the Olmert Government in leaving Jerusalem for later discussions, and in requiring a temporary Israeli military presence along the Jordan valley, the differences were reportedly not vast.

This suggests that, despite all too common claims – both by Israeli political opponents and by critics abroad – that Israel’s current Netanyahu Government is not serious in its declared policy of seeking a two-state resolution with the Palestinians, its actual bottom line is not very different from those of previous Israeli governments. Governments led by all three of Israel’s major political parties – Labor in 2000-2001, Kadima in 2008, and now Likud – therefore have made offers to the Palestinians that constitute the basis for a reasonable two-state outcome. There are differences in nuance, but the Israeli consensus around the major points of what most informed observers imagine a two-state resolution would look like is now as wall-to-wall as it is possible to imagine.

Sadly, the Haaretz account of these talks was also striking in depicting Palestinian negotiators who were clearly there only because of external pressure, and exhibiting virtually no interest in attempting to find any common ground or keep the process going. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat strongly resisted sitting in the same room as his Israeli counterparts, and once pressured into doing so immediately announced that unless Palestinian demands were met, he would end the talks on Jan. 26, as in fact he did (with some vague possibility left open the talks could resume later).

This unfortunate end to the talks was followed by the announcement on Feb. 6 in Doha, Qatar that the major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, had agreed in principle that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas should also assume the role of Prime Minister in an interim government, a step forward in ongoing negotiations over implementing a unity agreement signed in Cairo last year.

While it is true that the fractured rule in the West Bank and Gaza represents an obstacle to a potential two-state peace solution, Palestinian unification of the kind promoted in Qatar does not improve the chances for peace. On the contrary, while the establishment of a functioning Palestinian unity government is by no means assured, if it is implemented, any such government will likely carry with it dangerous implications.

President Abbas and his emissaries insist that Hamas agreed at Doha to accept all previous agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel, and agree to the premise that being part of a united Palestinian government means recognising Israel. However Hamas officials have emphatically denied this claim.

Moreover, senior Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip including Gazan Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud al-Zahar have criticised the agreement for compromising Hamas ideology and for the decision to appoint Abbas as Prime Minister of the unity government.

Only days after Hamas external leader Khaled Meshaal inked his pact with Abbas in Doha, Haniyeh was in Teheran pressing the flesh with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During his visit, Haniyeh vowed that Hamas “will never recognise Israel… The resistance will continue until all the Palestinian land, including al-Quds [Jerusalem], is liberated” and the “Gun is our only response to [the] Zionist regime … we can obtain our goals only through fighting and armed resistance and no compromise should be made with the enemy.”

In fact, rather than moderate, Hamas appears to have grown in confidence due to the rise to power of Islamist movements courtesy of the Arab Spring, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially, in Libya. Hamas views these regional changes as empowering for itself while weakening the PA and Israel. 

It would be a profoundly positive step towards the prospects of peace if Hamas were to genuinely accept the Quartet’s (UN, US, EU and Russia) principles for participation in the peace process – recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of past agreements. Unfortunately, Hamas has made it clear this has not been the case.

Instead, we are left with a more disturbing reality. Abbas has chosen the precarious path of a unity government with a Hamas that is still committed to Israel’s destruction, while rejecting opportunities to discuss peace with Israel – even when the Amman talks made it clear that the current government is part of the Israeli consensus for a genuine, realistic two-state resolution in exchange for a secure peace.

Abbas’ preference for unity with Hamas over discussing such a deal with Israel can only lead one to conclude he is either unable or unwilling to try to negotiate a feasible, fair two-state peace agreement of the sort that all reasonable observers have agreed is the only way out of the Israeli-Palestinian morass. Anyone who cares about ending the conflict – including improving the future welfare of the Palestinian people – must now do everything in their power to convince him and other Palestinian leaders that they have made the wrong choice.