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All the president’s arguments: An afternoon with Abbas

The PA leader came well-prepared to his meeting this week with Israeli reporters. Some of his points may well have been right. But were they all smart?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Israeli correspondents at the Muqata, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Israeli correspondents at the Muqata, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday afternoon, immediately after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had met with a group of us Israeli journalists at his Ramallah headquarters, one of his close aides buttonholed me for a few words in private, out of earshot of his colleagues. “What is it that you don’t understand?” he asked me, bitterly, passionately. “If he (Abbas) ‘goes,’ you won’t find anybody moderate like him. Does (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu not realize what we’re doing — that we’re preventing attacks on Israelis every day, that the absence of hope among the youth is drawing them into the daily violence? Netanyahu should sit down and talk with him. It’s just terrible.”

Netanyahu, however, is in no hurry to meet with Abbas, and the Israeli government is reluctant to internalize what is going on in the West Bank, and with the Palestinian public.

With more and more Palestinian voices opposing a two-state solution, and backing a single bi-national state, somebody on the Israeli side might have been expected to wake up, initiate, push. Why hasn’t that happened? It doesn’t take a genius to answer that.

Abbas himself said contacts to arrange a summit, which might have helped calm the day-to-day reality, were halted when the Israeli side got cold feet. Netanyahu’s office firmly denies this, but it’s not hard to imagine what would have happened to the prime minister in the current domestic political environment were he to have met with Abbas at a time like this. As it is, Netanyahu is constantly forced to face down attacks from hardliners within his coalition. A summit with Abbas would not have boosted its chances of survival. As for substantive negotiations, forget it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, January 17, 2015. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, January 17, 2015. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Abbas’s meeting with the Israeli press was one of his more impressive appearances of recent years. He was at ease, sharp, confident (not always the case) and good-humored. He’ll turn 81 in March, as one of my colleagues helpfully reminded him, but seems healthy. Indeed, the key message he wanted to deliver to the Israeli public and leadership was that he’s not going anywhere. Yes, a succession battle is raging outside among senior Fatah figures. And yes, most Palestinians want him to resign. But, he indicated firmly, he was staying put, and wasn’t done yet.

Specifically, assuming that there is no unexpected resumption of negotiations, Abbas’s plans for the coming months, he indicated, are as follows:

1. Convening some kind of international conference on the Palestinians, which will cause no little embarrassment to Israel.

2. Seeking to steer a resolution branding settlements as illegal through the UN Security Council.

3. Appealing to relevant UN bodies for international protection for the Palestinians.

Abbas did not go into all the specifics of these moves. But it may well be that a special committee of the Arab League, involving Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Palestine, will decide how and when to go to the Security Council.

These are not unprecedentedly dramatic steps. The Security Council has passed resolutions on the settlements in the past. Calls for international protection have previously been heard. International conferences have been convened. These moves, rather, are designed to demonstrate that the PA is still active and functioning, Abbas indicated, and also that it is not supporting violence and bloodshed. Netanyahu is adamant that the PA hierarchy, and Abbas himself, bear responsibility for inciting the Palestinian public to terror attacks against Israelis. And at our meeting, Abbas maintained his refusal to explicitly condemn the relentless attacks of the past four months. But he stressed that he opposes bloodshed, and he called for all Palestinians to confine their struggle to non-extreme means — “popular resistance,” he called it.

Abbas came well-prepared for the Israeli reporters’ critiques. “They say that I incite (against Israel)? Okay then,” he said, and proposed the convening of the long defunct joint Israeli-Palestinian-American committee on incitement. He did not deny that there is incitement, but proposed an ostensibly simple mechanism to deal with it: “Let the American representative (on the committee) decide what to do about incitement. And let them show me where exactly I incite.”

When he was asked why he refuses Netanyahu’s call to resume peace talks without preconditions, he responded by presenting the Palestinians’ terms, while refusing to define them as “preconditions.” These were, rather, “agreements that must be honored.” He demanded a freeze on settlement-building while talks are held, and the release of the fourth and final group of 36 prisoners (out of 104) who were due to go free under the failed John Kerry-led 2013-14 peace talks. Abbas claimed that Israel agreed to do so in a telephone call between Kerry and Netanyahu held in his Ramallah office. (Having released the first three groups of Palestinian security prisoners, Israel baulked at freeing the final group, including Israeli Arab citizens, and said it had never agreed to release Israeli Arabs. This was at a time when Abbas was refusing to commit to extending the negotiations.)

Whatever the merits of Abbas’s arguments, Netanyahu knows full well that were he to freeze settlement-building (as he did for 10 months in 2009-2010, despite which Abbas stayed away from the talks until the freeze was nearly over), or to release the prisoners, his current coalition would fall apart. He does have plenty of options for a unity government, but doesn’t want to go down that route right now.

Asked about the succession battle, Abbas said that the Fatah and PLO leaderships would handle it. The presidency of the PA, he said, was a matter for general elections. “That’s what will happen if I resign or die,” he said. He didn’t elaborate. And it wasn’t clear if he was indicating a certain division of powers — the selection of a successor to head Fatah and the PLO, and the election of a different candidate as PA chief. No clear answer was forthcoming. Nor did he relate to the possibility that jailed Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti might submit his candidacy to head the PA if elections were held.

He also said that the PA was not going to collapse, and that it was maintaining its security cooperation with Israel, and would continue to do so.

There were several areas in which Abbas was less than persuasive. One of them concerned his refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He noted repeatedly that “Israel did not require Egypt and Jordan to recognize it as a Jewish state” and he reiterated that “Israel can go to the UN and define itself however it wishes to.” Indeed, Israel did not make that demand of Egypt and Jordan, where the sensitivities on that issue are far less acute. But were Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it is unlikely that the ground around him would start to shake, and he would quash the right-wing assertion that he and the rest of the Palestinians ultimately seek to establish a single Palestinian state, from the river to the sea. (Ironically, of course, the current situation, including Israel’s inaction, are advancing the movement toward a single bi-national state.)

He was also asked why he had accused the Jews of desecrating the Al-Aqsa mosque with their presence. He claimed to have been referring only to those who go to the compound to stir up trouble.

And he was asked why the PA provides financial support to the families of terrorists who die killing Israelis or who are imprisoned for carrying out attacks. He answered that when the PA caught and executed a spy for Israel, it continued to provide financial support for his family. His wife and children had committed no crime, Abbas reasoned.

As with some of his other arguments, Abbas may have been right. But smart? That’s a whole other question.

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