The beginning of the end of the Abbas era
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Analysis

The beginning of the end of the Abbas era

Netanyahu’s pivot away from the Palestinians and toward regional Arab powers has its skeptics, but this PM has made a career out of being underestimated

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after addressing the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after addressing the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

Mahmoud Abbas is 79. His hold on the Palestinian people is tenuous. The institution he governs from the dilapidated Muqata compound in Ramallah is a poorly managed dictatorship. He is in the ninth year of a four-year presidential term, overseeing a regime that arrests young Palestinians who criticize it on Facebook.

Yet all that is secondary to the most glaring indignity of his rule: he is kept in power not by his own political acumen or even police power, but by Israel’s efficient suppression of his opponents, primarily Hamas, in the West Bank.

This fact is representative of the larger strategic reality in which the Palestinians live. Unlike other Arab peoples who might benefit from peace with Israel but do not actually need Israel, the Palestinians live too close, are too weak, and are physically divided by the Jewish state into two indefensible territories. As long as the IDF remains in the West Bank, this stark reality can be ignored. Independence from Israel trumps other considerations in the priorities of Palestinian politics. Yet any plan for viable Palestinian independence that does not take this reality into account will leave the Palestinians, even in victory, destitute and dependent rather than free and prosperous.

Indeed, even before one considers how an independent Palestine might prosper, there is another harsh truth for Palestinians to consider. It is, simply, that there is no discernible path toward Palestinian independence that does not pass through Israeli politics.

In 22 years of peacemaking, the Palestinians have seriously pursued only two strategies for attaining independence, and neither makes a significant effort to engage Israelis

This is not a reality that Palestinian politics is able or willing to acknowledge. In 22 years of peacemaking, the Palestinians have seriously pursued only two strategies for attaining independence, and neither makes a significant effort to engage Israelis.

The first strategy, once championed by Yasser Arafat and today primarily by Hamas, proposes that permanent belligerence and terrorism will have the same effect on Israelis that it had on French Algerians. Faced with unremitting violence, the Jews will leave, and the entire country, from Metulla to Eilat, from the metropolis of Tel Aviv to the cooperative villages of the Arava, will be handed to the Palestinians. It happened with French Algeria, Hamas leaders say, so why shouldn’t they believe that it can happen with Israel?

The second strategy is less violent but no less unilateral. Throughout the peace talks of the Oslo years and on to this year’s US-led talks between the Netanyahu and Abbas governments, the Palestinians have systematically sought to bring international pressure to bear on Israel to soften its stance in the negotiations. The global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign instigated by Fatah-led Palestinian civil groups, and the dissemination of wildly inaccurate lies or distortions about Palestinian suffering (from the “Jenin massacre” in 2002 to the claim this week by the top Palestinian peace negotiator that 96% of the Palestinian dead in this summer’s Gaza war were civilians), seek to level international pressure on Israel that will do the work Palestinian negotiators believe they cannot achieve at the negotiating table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government recite a prayer during a meeting in Ramallah on September 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ ABBAS MOMANI)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government recite a prayer during a meeting in Ramallah on September 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ ABBAS MOMANI)

Both strategies reflect the same refusal to deal with the importance of the Israeli body politic, and so both have failed. While Hamas trumpets the “glorious achievements” of its war machine, it has brought only calamity on Gaza and united the once-fractious Israeli political arena in its resolve to crush everything the group represents in Palestinian politics – with the Palestinian people, many of whom do not support Hamas, often caught in the middle.

The world’s willingness to fight for Palestine is severely diminished by the ample evidence provided by Hamas and other terror groups that the Israeli concern for the security fallout of any withdrawal may be well founded

Similarly, the global boycott movement celebrates its anecdotal successes, even as the world’s appetite for Israeli software, agricultural and pharmaceutical innovations, biotech, weapons systems, academic research and even Hebrew-language cultural production continues to mushroom year after year. In 2014, Israel came ahead of France, Austria and Belgium in the UN’s “human development” rankings, while the rise of China and India, both as world powers and as burgeoning trading partners for Israel, suggest the Jewish state is poised for more decades of economic expansion, much of it driven by trade with parts of the world where the Palestinian issue does not constitute a political handicap.

Worse for the PA, it does not seem to have dawned on Palestinian policymakers that the two strategies currently being pursued by the two halves of Palestinian politics fatally neutralize each other. Hamas’s permanent war undermines the strategy of international pressure. After the terrible, violent results of the Lebanon withdrawal in 2000 (not a Palestinian front, but an experience Israelis nevertheless associate with any future withdrawal) and the Gaza withdrawal of 2005, there is no amount of international moralizing or boycotting that can convince Israelis to sign up for a West Bank withdrawal unless they are convinced it is safe to pull out. And while Israelis are united as never before in their skepticism of Palestinian intentions, the world’s willingness to fight for Palestine is severely diminished by the ample evidence provided by Hamas and other terror groups that the Israeli concern for the security fallout of any withdrawal may be well founded.

Even the Arabs are not rushing to Palestine’s defense, with regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia preferring silent accommodation with Israel, which offers them strategic advantages that far outweigh what the Palestinians bring to the table.

It is worth noting that none of this can be construed as a moral argument for or against any side or strategy in the conflict. These are simply strategic realities that Palestinians have not seriously confronted in their pursuit of independence.

Shutting the door

On Friday, September 26, in his speech to the United Nations, Mahmoud Abbas declared that he had despaired of the bilateral negotiating track with the Israelis, that he was putting all his efforts in his waning years into the strategy of internationalization.

As a show of force, a signal of the damage he plans to inflict with this effort, he declared — in the speech’s first sentence — that “in this year, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Israel has chosen to make it a year of a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2014, in New York. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. CLARY)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2014, in New York. (photo credit: AFP/Timothy A. CLARY)

The sentence set the tone for the rest of the speech. Abbas took care to repeat the accusation of “genocide” twice more. The speech immediately came to be known among Israelis simply as the “genocide speech,” and set Israeli politics aflutter with right-wing denunciations and anguished hand-wringing on the left.

The right-wing statements were predictable. They all said, with slight variations, “we told you so. Abbas does not seek peace.”

But the left’s angst was more telling, born as it was in the realization that its hopes for Palestinian independence would be lost if the Palestinians openly abandoned even the pretense of accommodation and compromise.

Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September, 2008 (photo credit: AP Photo /Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)
Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September, 2008 (photo credit: AP Photo /Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief peace negotiator and an outspoken critic of West Bank settlement construction and of some of her right-wing coalition partners, told NPR’s Robert Siegel on September 30 that, as she recounted in a Hebrew statement after the interview, “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is going to waste precious time. Instead of sticking to the path of negotiations which would enable the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abu Mazen is now going to waste needless years with the demand to establish a date at the UN to establish the state.”

Even the deep Israeli left, which argues that Netanyahu is to blame for the failure of peace talks, acknowledged the falsehood in the genocide accusation — but tied Abbas’s dissimulation to the failure of Israeli policy.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli, an outspoken critic of Netanyahu on a range of issues, acknowledged that “Abu Mazen said far-reaching lies at the UN on the eve of the holiday [Rosh Hashanah],” but blamed Israeli dawdling and motionlessness for the frustration that drove the outburst.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Haaretz’s Amira Hass, perhaps the most strident proponent of the Palestinian narrative in the Hebrew-language media, explained that the use of the “genocide” term amounted to a necessary “scream” — since Israelis refuse to listen when calmer tones are used. +972 Magazine’s Larry Derfner, meanwhile, lamented in English that Abbas’s statement was “politically suicidal, precisely because it’s so clearly false,” and only served to shut Israelis’ ears to the important truths Abbas offered in the rest of the speech.

Whether they deplored, justified or merely lamented the statement, a consensus seemed to emerge among left-wing commentators that Abbas’s speech had not helped the Palestinian cause in the Israeli public debate.

And there lies its importance. The Israeli public debate, with which few Palestinian leaders have ever meaningfully engaged, has now been abandoned with crushing finality.

“We will not accept to forever be the ones being demanded to prove their good intentions by making concessions at the expense of their rights and to remain silent as they are killed and their land is stolen, and to understand the conditions of the other party and the importance of preserving its coalition government, while it entrenches its occupation,” Abbas declared. “We are exhausted of the additional tests we must undergo to prove our efficiency, competence and eligibility to earn our natural, simple right to live a normal life and our inherent right to expect a stable and ordinary tomorrow, to dream about more beautiful days, and for our youth to be able to plan their coming days and years safely in peace and freedom over our land, like other peoples of the world.”

The empty seats of the Israel delegation to the UN as President Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 26, 2014 . (photo credit: AP /Richard Drew)
The empty seats of the Israel delegation to the UN as President Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 26, 2014 . (photo credit: AP /Richard Drew)

Abbas even told a riveted world — or, at least, a few hundred riveted diplomats — that removing Israel’s occupation through international pressure was part of any global campaign against the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria. To Netanyahu’s refrain of “Hamas is ISIS, ISIS is Hamas,” Abbas replied with, “Confronting the terrorism that plagues our region… requires, in this context and as a priority, bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of our country, which constitutes in its practices and perpetuation, an abhorrent form of state terrorism and a breeding ground for incitement, tension and hatred.”

As a growing number of countries take to bombing IS installations from the air, Abbas hopes to convince the world to see IS as an outcome, at least in part, of Israeli policy. His peace negotiator Saeb Erekat was even less circumspect.

‘The enemy also moves’

As a young recruit in the elite IDF commando unit Sayeret Matkal, Benjamin Netanyahu, known then and now by the nickname “Bibi,” was taught a powerful lesson by his brother Yoni, who outranked him in the unit and would go on to be one of its most famous commanders.

Benjamin Netanyahu as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal (Photo credit: Wikicommons/ GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal (Photo credit: Wikicommons/ GPO)

The older Yoni took the future prime minister to a hilltop on the training grounds of an IDF base and asked him how he would conquer the hill in battle. Bibi offered a plan of attack, probably laying out the usual IDF battle doctrine taught to every 18-year-old infantryman for the past six decades: deploy a flanking force covered by suppressing fire and initiate a staggered advance to close the distance to the entrenched enemy.

While his opponents too often plan for a static opponent, Netanyahu prides himself on his ability to maneuver

But Yoni was unimpressed. The problem with Bibi’s plan, the veteran commander explained, was that the enemy also moves. It was a fatal flaw for a military commander to construct his strategy on the assumption that the enemy would not react, surprise and seek to disrupt the plan of attack. By the time his troops arrived at the enemy position, the enemy could have flanked Bibi’s own moving column.

It was a lesson Netanyahu took to heart. While his opponents too often plan for a static opponent, Netanyahu prides himself on his ability to maneuver.

Thus, when an energetic but inexperienced first-term President Obama pressured him on settlements in 2009, or when Hamas believed that it had found in its rocket strategy an uncontainable method for inflicting psychological pressure on the Israeli homefront — in these moments and others, Netanyahu adapted, surprised and reshaped the tactical environment in his favor. In 2010, he pushed a ten-month settlement freeze through his government despite the protestations of the sizable contingents of West Bank annexationists in his coalition, thereby shifting American pressure at least temporarily to the Palestinian side. And in response to Hamas, he constructed a new strategy of facing down rocket fire with slow but relentless escalation and diplomatic obstinacy — a strategy that drew plenty of criticism from both Israelis who yearned for a decisive victory and international voices who condemned its humanitarian toll, but that had the immense advantage Netanyahu sought: it surprised and demoralized Hamas, and convinced its enemies, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Abbas himself, that it was worth holding the line with Israel against the organization.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Barack Obama embrace at a ceremony welcoming the US leader at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It is worth recounting these examples because they loom large in Netanyahu’s mind, along with other similar instances, as successful pivots that turned a difficult strategic position into a more favorable one.

In the wake of Mahmoud Abbas’s speech, Netanyahu has begun to move once again.

Many Israeli leaders interpreted the “genocide” speech as the formal kick-off to an all-out international campaign to realize at the UN and the International Criminal Court what Palestinian negotiators could not obtain at the negotiating table: Israeli concessions on the most painful issues, such as refugees, borders and Jerusalem.

For Israel, the Palestinians now present two choices, and hope to box Israel in with these choices: Hamas’s permanent war or Abbas’s maximalist (in Israel’s view) demands backed by the threat of international isolation. In response to this Palestinian “plan of attack,” Netanyahu has begun a subtle strategy of his own — one which addresses the other side’s internationalization with his own version of the same.

“I think that there are opportunities. And the opportunities, as you just expressed, is something that is changing in the Middle East, because out of the new situation, there emerges a commonality of interests between Israel and leading Arab states,” he told President Obama in the White House on Wednesday. “And I think that we should work very hard together to seize on those common interests and build a positive program to advance a more secure, more prosperous and a more peaceful Middle East.”

US President Barack Obama, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, October 1, 2014. photo credit: AFP/ Jim WATSON)
US President Barack Obama, right, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, October 1, 2014. photo credit: AFP/ Jim WATSON)

If the Palestinians won’t parley, Israel would take the Palestinian issue to the larger Middle East — where Netanyahu believes, particularly after the Egyptian experience in Gaza, that there is little more than rhetorical sympathy for their cause.

His very next sentence signaled how seriously he took the new approach.

“I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition and rock solid security arrangements on the ground,” he declared — not for Palestinian ears, or even for his American hosts, but for the Arab leaders he hopes will take notice of his new offer, as he immediately made clear: “And I believe we should make use of the new opportunities, think outside the box, see how we can recruit the Arab countries to advance this very hopeful agenda. And I look forward to our discussions on these and many other matters.”

Grudging acceptance

It is hard to see how the bilateral talks of the past can be resuscitated given the dramatic shifts of the past few days. Abbas has climbed too high up the tree of internationalization to come down without results, and Israel is committed to denying him those results, which would mean significant setbacks for the Israeli negotiating position.

At the same time, Israeli leaders, largely backed by Israeli public opinion, have despaired of finding a middle ground with the current Palestinian leadership and genuinely fear the “Hamas-ization” of the West Bank, which would place much of the Israeli heartland squarely in the range of Palestinian weapons and tactics that no missile defense system has yet to counter, especially mortars and tunnels.

Netanyahu faced an immediate wave of criticism for this shift this week. Pundits doubted whether the convergence of Israeli and moderate Arab interests was strong enough to overcome the obstacle of unresolved Israeli-Palestinian animosity.

But in the very act of expressing these doubts, some Arab leaders demonstrated the seriousness with which they are taking the suggestion.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Doha on August 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ PPO / THAER GHANEM)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Doha on August 21, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ PPO / THAER GHANEM)

The emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who was Hamas’s key funder and patron in last summer’s conflict, told CNN last week that his country was open to reviving relations with Israel (a low-level diplomatic office was shut in 2009 during that year’s Gaza conflict) — “as long as they are serious in making peace and providing and protecting the Palestinian people.”

Indeed, the strongest rejection of the idea came from those who are already largely committed to it. “Chances for such alliance (with Israel) are nearly nonexistent,” said Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a former Egyptian intelligence official who is close to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, according to AP — strong words for a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel, intimate security cooperation, and eagerly aids Israel in the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

And the United States, too, may be shifting in light of the new reality.

According to Israel’s Channel 10, US Secretary of State John Kerry plans to convene intensive new peace talks under the auspices of regional Arab powers. Kerry reportedly wants these contacts to last two months and involve nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

The new effort, which would lend American backing to Netanyahu’s pivot, will not be cost-free, the report suggests. Netanyahu will be asked by the Americans to publicly express a positive attitude towards the 2002 Saudi-drafted Arab Peace Initiative — if not by endorsing it wholesale, at least by welcoming its general intent.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, right, attends a ministerial meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to discuss developments in the war-battered Gaza Strip on August 12, 2014 in Jeddah. (photo credit: AFP/STR)
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, right, attends a ministerial meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to discuss developments in the war-battered Gaza Strip on August 12, 2014 in Jeddah. (photo credit: AFP/STR)

At the same time, US officials would ask Abbas to hold off for a few months on his demand for a UN Security Council resolution setting a deadline of November 2016 for an Israeli withdrawal — a new source of pressure on Abbas that would carry not only the threat of American displeasure (as Abbas himself suggested this week, the US may be wielding its desperately needed aid to the PA as a threat to bring him back to the table), but the legitimacy granted by the engagement of other Arab states.

The gap between Israel and the Palestinians remains unbridgeably vast. Israel’s security needs almost certainly preclude full Palestinian sovereignty when it comes to defense. Meanwhile, the Palestinian need to have a peace agreement that addresses and in some measure reverses the narrative of dispossession and calamity suggests that no Palestinian leader can agree to a Palestine without the Temple Mount and an explicit Israeli statement of culpability for refugees — demands no Israeli leader can deliver.

Yet these gaps don’t change the harsh truth, the bitter pill that Palestinian politics faces: that the Jews are at once their enemy and their unavoidable future.

For many years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict held pride of place in the foreign policy discourse in Washington and other Western capitals. Foreign policy realists propounded the theory of “linkage,” that the challenges faced by the broader Middle East are intimately tied to what happens in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

“Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East, one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all the other Middle East conflicts would melt away,” explained Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, whose 2009 book “Myths, Illusions, and Peace” took this theory to task.

The theory lost favor in the wake of the Arab Spring, which revealed vast tensions and processes underway in the region that had little to do with the tiny strip of Mediterranean coast shared by Palestinians and Jews.

Now, perhaps, a new theory of linkage is emerging — in reverse. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key to the region’s troubles, but perhaps a troubled region will find a new reason to try to end this distraction, which stands in the way of an unprecedented alliance desperate to stem the chaos and violence that engulfs more of the region with each passing year.

At least, Netanyahu hopes so.

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