Why Abbas looks unready to say “yes” to Kerry
Mar 14, 2014
March 14, 2014
Number 03/14 #03
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is due to visit Washington this weekend, following on from the visit last week by Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. While reports say that Israel is prepared to say yes, with reservations to the “Framework agreement” on Israeli-Palestinian peace that US Secretary of State John Kerry is brokering, signs from Abbas have been less positive, with reports from Palestinian sources that Abbas “exploded with rage over the US Secretary’s proposals, and described them as ‘insanity'” at a meeting in late February. He even gave a speech on March 6 to young Fatah activists which emphatically ruled out compromise on both the right of return or any recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland (video here, transcript here.)
Given that the talks are scheduled to end next month, the Update deals with the likelihood of a change of heart on Abbas’ part and acceptance of the framework deal before then.
First up, veteran Palestinian Affairs reporter and recent visitor to Australia Khaled Abu Toameh argues that recent backing from the Arab League for Abbas’ position makes it much less likely that he will show any flexibility. The Arab League put out a statement backing Abbas’ position of refusing to compromise on borders, refugees or recognising Israel as a Jewish homeland, and his spokesperson, Abu Toameh points out, is claiming that Abbas is now speaking not only for the Palestinians but for the entire Arab world in rejecting key provisions of the Kerry proposals. Abu Toameh predicts that Abbas will use the Arab League backing to argue that he cannot offer any compromise regardless of any pressure placed on him by the US. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE. Abu Toameh also had another piece the previous day noting that, in addition to the debate about recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland, PA spokespersons have effectively insisted that Abbas is not authorised to compromise on any of the other major issues to be settled – settlements, Jerusalem, borders and refugees.
Next up, British-based Middle East analyst Oren Kessler offers a sweeping explanation of why Palestinian leaders are unlikely to sign up to Kerry’s plan for a two-state peace – getting statehood is not currently a priority for them. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, he says that they view the conflict in zero-sum terms, believe Israel is under pressure from the international community and Washington and expect the failure of the talks will leave Israel with only bad options. He argues the US does have leverage to change their calculations, particularly in terms of the financial aid on which the PA depends, but will need to demonstrate a willingness to use it. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, former Israeli Knesset member and author Einat Wilf offers her take on why the Palestinians are so adamant about rejecting the idea of mutual recognition of “two states for two peoples.” She explains it in terms of what she learned as young leftist involved in encounters with young Palestinians – even these supposed moderates completely rejected any Jewish right to self-determination in Israel, being prepared to concede only that “You were born here and you are already here, so we will not send you away.” She has formulated a statement expressing a belief in the right of both peoples to self-determination and has long sought in vain for a Palestinian who would agree to sign it with her – but happily, has finally found one, Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, founder of the Palestinian centrist movement, Wasatia. For this important look at why the Palestinian worldview seems so unwilling to acknowledge a Jewish right to self-determination, CLICK HERE. Wilf also had another important article arguing that, as the above indicates, mutual recognition of national rights is not a precondition for ending the conflict, but the essence of doing so.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Former Palestinian minister Ali Jabari had a recent piece in the New York Times explaining Palestinian objections to recognising Israel as a Jewish homeland. Jonathan Tobin points out that the arguments Jabari offers actually amount to saying that the Palestinians do not accept Israel’s right to exist, and hope to flood it with “refugees”.
- A debunking of Jabari’s false claim that Israel’s demand that a peace recognise it as a Jewish homeland “didn’t exist until the thought occurred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
- Evidence that Arafat was apparently prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, or at least said he would.
- Israel suffered more than 50 rocket attacks from Gaza on Wednesday before retaliating at Gaza targets that night. Experts say the Iranian proxy group Islamic Jihad was effectively challenging Hamas by launching the barrage.
- Neri Zilber of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains some realities in the face of misinformation circulating about efforts to change the electoral threshold in Israel for parliamentary elections.
- A particularly warm speech at the Knesset from visiting British PM David Cameron.
- Isi Leibler writes about the apparently unbridgeable gap between Obama and Netanyahu. He also published a response to John Lyons’ latest reaction to critics of his ABC “Four Corners” program “Stone Cold Justice”, including a new claim about some alleged unjournalistic behavour from Lyons.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Colin Rubenstein responds to Lyons’ claims about AIJAC in a letter to the Australian.
- Allon Lee’s latest “Media Week” column, dealing with the empirical weakness of Lyons’ reaction to criticism of his reporting.
- Ahron Shapiro on how Palestinian NGOs are opposing the most effective way to get clean water to Gazans for political reasons.
On the eve of his meeting with President Barack Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has won the backing of the Arab League for his positions and demands.
The Arab League support is exceedingly important for Abbas: it gives him the power and energy to resist any pressure from Obama to soften or change his position.
The Arab league’s announcement came after a meeting of its foreign ministers, in Cairo, attended by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki, who urged his counterparts to show their support for Abbas on the eve of his meeting with Obama, scheduled to take place in Washington on March 17.
The Arab League announcement allows Abbas to turn down any request from Obama under the pretext that he is not authorized by the Arab countries to make any concessions.
Obama should therefore not expect to hear anything new from Abbas, who continues to insist there will be no peace agreement until Israel and the U.S. comply with all his demands.
By requesting the backing of the Arab countries, Abbas is seeking to show Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that there is no point in exerting pressure on him because the Arab countries will not accept any concessions to Israel.
Abbas has actually tied his own hands before the meeting as a way of avoiding pressure.
Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, resorted to the same tactic during the miscalculated Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Then, Arafat too claimed that he did not have a mandate from the Arab and Islamic countries to make concessions to Israel and that was why he would not be able to strike a deal.
The Arab League announcement also allows Abbas to tell Obama that he is speaking not only on behalf of Palestinians, but the entire Arab world as well. However, many Palestinians would argue that Abbas does not even have a mandate from his people to negotiate, let alone sign, any peace agreement with Israel.
But the Obama Administration does not really seem to care whether Abbas, who recently entered the 10th year of his four-year term in office, is authorized by his people to sign a deal with Israel. Obama and Kerry seem to want a deal at any cost, even if it is with a president who lost his legitimacy many years ago and even if the deal will unravel the day after.
So now Abbas is going to mislead Obama into thinking that he is coming to meet with him not only as the “rightful” leader of the Palestinians, but also as a representative of the Arab world.
As Abbas’s foreign minister, Riad Malki, explained following the Cairo gathering, “When President Abbas arrives in Washington, he will be talking not only on behalf of Palestine, but on behalf of all the Arab countries.”
In other words, Abbas is going to pretend that the entire Arab world has authorized him to speak on its behalf during his meeting with Obama. Never mind that the Arab League, which issued the statement backing Abbas, is considered extremely inefficient and incompetent and no one in the Arab world takes it seriously.
In any event, the Arab League announcement in support of Abbas is going to make his mission to Washington even more difficult.
The announcement reiterated the Arab countries’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, insisted on a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and rejected any attempt to “resettle” Palestinian refugees “outside their homeland.”
Now that he has won the backing of the Arab League for his positions, Abbas will feel more confident to say no to Obama. The Arab League has in fact authorized Abbas to resist all forms of pressure from the U.S. Administration.
Yet Abbas is also full of self-confidence because he and many Palestinians are encouraged by what they perceive as increased boycotts of Israel in the international arena.
The Palestinians also do not take Obama seriously, especially in light of his failure in dealing with the crises in the Arab world and Ukraine.
Abbas believes that he can say no to Obama because the U.S. Administration will not take any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian officials in Ramallah pointed out the threats by the U.S. Administration to impose financial sanctions if Abbas sought unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations two years ago.
“President Abbas feels satisfied with the comprehensive campaign of boycotting Israel in the academic and economic fields,” explained Palestinian political analyst Hani Habib. “This means that the international public opinion is today supportive of the Palestinian position.”
Arab political support and anti-Israel boycott campaigns around the world have emboldened Abbas to a point where he feels that there is no need for him to make any concessions for the sake of peace.
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Not right now, they don’t.
The Palestinians have all the leverage, a former top State Department specialist on the Mideast peace process recently told me over red wine in Tel Aviv. “I’m not sure they’ll ever sign on the dotted line.” In that moment of candor — lubricated no doubt by the Golan Heights cabernet — the ex-bureaucrat admitted something U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration would never concede publicly: The Palestinians are under little to no pressure to sign a final peace agreement with Israel. The consensus among right-thinking people, of course, is that self-determination is the incentive par excellence for Palestinian leaders to strike a deal. That was the view Obama articulated on Feb. 27, four days before he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that more than anything else, the Palestinians seek “the dignity of a state.” Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the “dignity” talking point on March 3 at the pro-Israel policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
But if the Palestinians are desperately seeking a negotiated settlement that grants them a state of their own, they’re certainly hiding it well. In July, Kerry announced an ill-advised nine-month deadline for delivering Middle East peace. That gestation period is nearly complete, but there doesn’t seem to be a bun in Washington’s oven. Undeterred, the administration is making a final push: Netanyahu visited the Oval Office on March 3, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set to follow on March 17. If, however, Kerry and Obama are to succeed where their predecessors have all failed, they will have to fundamentally reassess their policy toward the Palestinians.
It’s actually the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who are under pressure from all corners to reach a peace deal. Obama often reminds the Israelis that time is working against them, as high Palestinian birthrates could mean that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River will have an Arab majority before long. For his part, Kerry warns Israel that the threat of boycotts and delegitimization is growing. The European Union, meanwhile, has set new guidelines against its funds going to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and it is considering labeling goods that originate there. The United Nations has declared 2014 the “International Year of Solidarity With the Palestinian People.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are watching from the sidelines with glee. As one Palestinian negotiator told an Israeli official during a spate of terrorist attacks a decade ago, “Victory for us is to see you suffer.” Viewers of the Palestinian Authority’s official television station are unceasingly reminded that the Arab-Israeli conflict is an existential, zero-sum dispute. The channel assures its audience that cities in Israel will ultimately return to Arab rule, that the murder of Israeli civilians is a heroic deed, and that Jews are “barbaric monkeys, wretched pigs” — or in the words of putatively peace-minded Palestinian Authority official Jibril Rajoub, “Satans” and “Zionist sons of bitches.” And that’s not to speak of the fire-eyed theocrats of Hamas, who run the show in the Gaza Strip.
It’s inconceivable that Palestinian leaders, watching Israel squirm under unprecedented international pressure, would allow the Jewish state to rehabilitate its image as peace-seeker. Instead, they recognize that after the peace talks’ inevitable failure, the Jewish state will be faced with only bad options. If Israel maintains the status quo, international pressure upon it can only grow. If it unilaterally withdraws from all or part of the West Bank, it will almost certainly face the same rocket attacks that followed its last two withdrawals — from Gaza in 2005 and from south Lebanon in 2000. This time, however, the rockets will be aimed at Tel Aviv and its international airport. The Palestinian Authority will then argue that it can’t be blamed for the security breakdown, because it was not consulted in carrying out the withdrawal.
The Obama administration seems determined not to contemplate the idea that the Palestinians habitually choose Israeli occupation over independence. But we’ve seen this show before: In 2000, Israel offered to dismantle more than 60 settlements, withdraw from 92 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, share the prickliest areas of Jerusalem’s Old City, and grant the Palestinians a capital in the city’s eastern areas. Some 100,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be allowed to move within Israel’s borders. Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinians’ leader, turned down the offer without making one of his own and then gave tacit or explicit sanction to the Second Intifada, an outburst of bombings and shootings that killed more than 1,000 Israelis over several years.
Between 2006 and 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas 36 times, giving even more concessions — offering some 95 percent of the West Bank, with swaps of land in Israel to bring the exchange to 100 percent, and a fund for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Abbas walked away. As Olmert lamented in 2013, “I am still waiting for a phone call.”
Is Abbas as toxic as Arafat, the unreformed terrorist? No. Is he Palestine’s version of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, ready to turn his sword into a ploughshare and lock hands on the White House lawn? Not a chance.
Abbas may have realized that Israel, to use Obama’s words, “is not going anywhere.” Sadly, he has obdurately refused to pass on the memo to his people — in Arabic, he continues to feed them the fantasy of a wholesale “right of return” of millions of Arabs to Israel that no Israeli leader will ever allow. In 2012, he conceded to an Israeli journalist that he would return to his Galilee hometown of Safed only as a tourist — but quickly walked back his comments after the resulting uproar. Having thus primed his people, Abbas predictably finds that there is virtually no Palestinian constituency for a realistic peace deal.
That’s why Shlomo Avineri, an octogenarian Israeli peacenik and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, can write in the dovish daily Haaretz: “Don’t expect Abbas to sign anything.” That’s why, this week, Abbas’s underlings reacted to Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech — a veritable olive branch, by his standards — with canned outrage. Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thundered Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath, is “totally rejected” and “contravene[s] all the rules of the peace negotiations.”
None of this is to suggest that Israel is blameless. Israel could have avoided many, though not all, of its current predicaments by not having embarked on the West Bank settlement enterprise in the first place — at least not in areas distant from Israel proper and heavily inhabited by Palestinians. The enterprise has been damaging to Israel because it obscures the fact that Palestinians still overwhelmingly reject the Jewish state to begin with and because it gives the Palestinians a plausible pretext for endlessly deferring difficult decisions. In other words, it gives them nearly limitless leverage.
So what is to be done? The good news is that the United States does have ways to influence the Palestinians to negotiate seriously — if only it is willing to use them. Washington is the single biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority, and thus Congress could condition U.S. aid on stopping all that monkeys-and-devils incitement (two such initiatives are currently in the first stages of legislation). The United States could also offer significant aid boosts to the Palestinians if they make tangible steps toward peace, and threaten corresponding cutbacks if they fail to do so.
Such a policy will ultimately benefit the Palestinians more than anyone. Washington, as well as the world, does them no favors in forever excusing their failure to better their lot and in painting them as a people always acted upon but never acting. The Palestinian leadership currently has no incentive to make a deal — but in the interest of peace, that can and must change.
Oren Kessler is a Henry Jackson Society research fellow specializing in the Middle East.
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Al-Monitor, March 6, 2014
I was born into the Israeli left. I grew up in the left. I was always a member of the left. I believed that the day that the Palestinians would have their own sovereign state would be the day when Israel would finally live in peace. But like many Israelis of the left, I lost this certainty I once had.
Why? Over the last 14 years, I have witnessed the inability of the Palestinians to utter the word “yes” when presented with repeated opportunities to attain sovereignty and statehood; I have lived through the bloody massacres by means of suicide bombings in cities within pre-1967 Israel following the Oslo Accords and then again after the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000; and I have experienced firsthand the increasing venom of anti-Israel rhetoric that only, very thinly, masks a deep and visceral hatred for the state and its people that cannot be explained by mere criticism for the policies of some of its elected governments.
But one of the most pronounced moments over the past several years that has made me very skeptical toward the left were a series of meetings I had with young, moderate Palestinian leaders to which I was invited by virtue of being a member of Israel’s Labor Party.
I had much in common with these young Palestinian leaders. We could relate to each other. However, through discussion, I soon discovered that the moderation of the young Palestinian leaders was in their acknowledgement that Israel is already a reality and therefore is not likely to disappear. I even heard phrases such as, “You were born here and you are already here, so we will not send you away.” (Thank you very much, I thought). But, what shocked and changed my approach to peace was that when we discussed the deep sources of the conflict between us, I was told, “Judaism is not a nationality, it’s only a religion and religions don’t have the right to self-determination.” The historic connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel was also described as made-up or nonexistent.
Reflecting on the comments of these “moderates,” I was forced to realize that the conflict is far deeper and more serious than I allowed myself to believe. It was not just about settlements and “occupation,” as Palestinian spokespeople have led the Israeli left to believe. I realized that the Palestinians, who were willing to accept the need for peace with Israel, did so because Israel was strong. I realized that, contrary to the leftist views in Israel, which support the establishment of a Palestinian state because the Palestinians have a right (repeat: right) to sovereignty in their homeland, there is no such parallel Palestinian “left” that recognizes the right (repeat: right) of the Jewish people to sovereignty in its ancient homeland.
These did not remain personal reflections. For the following years, these conversations impacted my political career as I found myself within the Labor Party increasingly alienated from what I began to term as the “self-flagellating left,” to which the conflict was entirely due to Israel’s actions and which demanded no responsibility or recognition from the Palestinians. As a member of the Knesset, on behalf of the Labor Party, I helped carry out a split within the party between its dovish and hawkish wing in order to allow the hawkish wing headed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak to remain in the coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This realization has also motivated my continued work around the world to defend Israel and Zionism, insisting that all peace must be rooted in the mutual recognition of the equal right of both peoples to the land.
So, it was somewhat ironic when, just several months ago, I received an email from the Israeli-Palestinian meeting’s organizer to write a response to one of the program’s core funders as to whether the program had an “impact on anything or anybody.” I was asked to “reflect back a few years” and to write whether the program “had any impact on you — personally, professionally, socially, politically … ” Naturally, I responded. I wrote that the program had a “tremendous impact on my thinking and I continue to discuss it to this day in my talks and lectures.” I shared the above story with the organizer, recognizing that “it is probably not a perspective you want to share with your funders.”
In response, the organizer sent me an email saying that there are “many, not one, grass-roots and political Palestinians who truly believe that Jews have a right to part of the land.” I responded enthusiastically that meeting even “one Palestinian who believes that the Jewish people have an equal and legitimate claim to the land would be huge for me,” and that “I’ve been looking for someone like that ever since I participated in the program many years ago.”
Shortly thereafter, I received the following quote from a Palestinian participant who expressed a desire to renew the program so that “we can reach a resolution to this conflict by having an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as it’s capital living in peace side-by-side with the State of Israel.” I responded, “I do not see that this individual writes that he recognizes the equal and legitimate right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state in their own homeland.” I was then asked to write precisely what would convince me that we have a true partner for peace in the Palestinians. So, I drafted the following phrase:
“The Jewish people and Palestinian people are both indigenous to the Land of Israel/Palestine and therefore have an equal and legitimate claim to a sovereign state for their people on the land.” I added that this sentence could be expanded to say, “Both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people around the world have an equal and legitimate claim to settle and live anywhere in the Land of Israel/Palestine, but given the desire of both peoples to a sovereign state that would reflect their unique culture and history, we believe in partitioning the land into a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine, that would allow them each to enjoy dignity and sovereignty in their own national home.” I would also add here that it should be clear that neither Israel nor Palestine should be exclusively for the Jewish and Palestinian people respectively and both should accommodate minorities of the other people.
The organizer promised to get back to me. Weeks and months passed, and I was about to publish this piece, opening up the conversation, hoping to find partners who share my belief, so that I could rekindle my hope that peace is possible. At the last minute, I was contacted by professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, the head of American Studies at Al-Quds University and founder of the Palestinian centrist movement, Wasatia. All he asked was to change the word “claim” to “right,” and “partition” to “sharing,” saying that “right” was more positive, and “partitioning” had in the deep psyche of the Palestinians the negative connotation of the 1947 UN partition plan recommendation. He emphasized that 67 years later, he hopes that Palestinians would realize that sharing the land by a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, as envisioned by the UN resolution, was “the right thing to do” in 1947, since both people do have a legitimate right to the land, and remains “the right thing to do” today. I found these changes wholly acceptable and welcome. So the statement we share now reads as follows:
“The Jewish people around the world and Palestinian people around the world are both indigenous to the Land of Israel/Palestine and therefore have an equal and legitimate right to settle and live anywhere in the Land of Israel/Palestine, but given the desire of both peoples to a sovereign state that would reflect their unique culture and history, we believe in sharing the land between a Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine, that would allow them each to enjoy dignity and sovereignty in their own national home. Neither Israel nor Palestine should be exclusively for the Jewish and Palestinian people respectively and both should accommodate minorities of the other people.”
Who else will join us in our journey to find true partners on both sides?
Dr. Einat Wilf was the chair of the Education Committee and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the 18th Knesset. She is the author of three books that explore key issues in Israeli society.