Despite enmity, Netanyahu would still meet with Abbas, officials say

Palestinian leader’s ‘genocide’ speech reduced chances of tête-à-tête, but Jerusalem sources maintain PM would grab realistic opportunity

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Despite seemingly unprecedented diplomatic tensions, a one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas to salvage the fledgling peace process is not out of the question, Israeli officials said Tuesday.

Relations between the two leaders were never great, and Abbas’s “genocide” speech last week made a possible tête-à-tête much more difficult to arrange, officials said.

However, several current and former officials close to Netanyahu insisted the theoretical chance of a diplomatic breakthrough leading to the resumption of direct negotiations in the future should never be dismissed.

“As of now, a meeting is not impossible, it’s just not reasonable,” said Yoaz Hendel, who headed the Public Diplomacy Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office from 2011 until 2012. “The gap between the two sides is becoming bigger and bigger — but not because of speeches at the UN or the fact that [Abbas] started a campaign against Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu answered him.” Rather, said Hendel, simply because neither side is willing to make the compromises necessary for an agreement.

The basis for any peace deal will be security arrangements and other mechanisms to guarantee that a possible treaty will survive, added Hendel, who now heads the Institute of Zionist Strategy.

Even an inciting and hateful speech at the UN does not trump these considerations, he said. “There are no emotions in politics, especially not in the Middle East.”

On Friday, Abbas accused Israel of having committed a “war of genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza during his address to the UN General Assembly.

Netanyahu shot back sharply Tuesday night during his speech there, accusing Abbas of denying the Holocaust and insisting on a “Judenrein” Palestine while “shamelessly” accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

And yet, even if a resumption of serious peace negotiations appears unimaginable — as the the two leaders seem preoccupied with mutual recriminations and are advocating conflicting paths forward — the climate could change for the better instantly if only the the circumstances are right, several officials in Jerusalem said.

“Diplomacy is the art of the possible,” said a senior diplomatic official. “Abbas’s genocide speech is making things very difficult, but not impossible. It’s impossible only if you want it to be impossible.”

The last public meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu took place in the fall of 2010. Last month, a Jordanian paper claimed to know about a secret meeting in Amman to have occurred during Operation Protective Edge, but the Prime Minister’s Office promptly denied the report.

Netanyahu insisted last year that he was willing to meet Abbas at any point, and Abbas has made similar statements publicly.

The two leaders “aren’t little children,” a former top security official who was close to the prime minister said.

“In the diplomatic world it’s not what you said, but what your interests are, and whether you can achieve your goals,” said the official, who asked to remain nameless.

Should Abbas suddenly want to sit down with Netanyahu to discuss a peace deal, the prime minister would seize the opportunity, the former senior official said.

“If Abu Mazen were to send a messenger tomorrow to Netanyahu, saying, ‘I had no choice but to give this speech. I had to do it to improve my standing at home, but now I propose serious negotiations. Let’s sit in Dubai and talk.’ Would Netanyahu not sit with him unless he apologized form the stage at the UN? Of course he would,” he said.

Another Israeli official said Abbas was hoping his attack on Israel would reverse his sinking approval ratings and Hamas’s high popularity among Palestinians. Netanyahu likewise responded harshly to Abbas in order to satisfy his voter base back at home, the official said. Taken together, the speeches mean a meeting is not in the cards right now.

“But now that both of them have reasserted their masculinity vis-à-vis their own home crowd, there is no reason for them not to meet. Just give it some time,” the official said.

However, the official added, Israel is increasingly enchanted by the idea of a rapprochement with the wider Arab world that would precede peace with the Palestinians, as Netanyahu indicated Monday at the UN.

Right now Jerusalem is not going to chase after Abbas, he said.

“If Abbas wants to come to the table, he has to say it. We’re not going to run after him,” he said. “There is a deal that can be done with Abbas under the old model. His speech doesn’t prevent it. But it looks increasingly unrealistic.”

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