David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting to discuss the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2020. (Mohamad Torokman/Pool Photo via AP, File)
What was going through Mahmoud Abbas’s head, I wonder, as he watched the inspirational normalization ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, carried live on Palestinian TV?
Was he thinking, that could have been me, up there on the balcony, making peace with Israel, if only I’d so much as responded to prime minister Ehud Olmert’s extraordinary, hurried 2008 offer? Was he thinking, that could have been me, if I’d taken full advantage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deeply reluctant, US president Obama-imposed 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-10, rather than frittering away the first nine months by refusing to negotiate?
Abbas self-righteously declares that he does not want to go down as the leader who sold out the Palestinian cause, as the leader who betrayed his people’s interests. But that’s precisely what he has done over the 16 years since he succeeded the late Yasser Arafat, that duplicitous participant in a previous White House accords ceremony.
L-R: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Unlike Arafat, Abbas hasn’t directly orchestrated terrorism. But he and his establishment have relentlessly incited against the Jewish state, deriding its historical legitimacy, and serving as a prime instigator of what US President Donald Trump, in his speech, accurately nailed as constant lies “that Al-Aqsa was under attack.” These lies, “passed down from generation to generation,” said Trump, have fueled “a vicious cycle of terror and violence” in this region and beyond. And in so doing, Abbas has strategically chosen, as clearly as Arafat did, not to prepare his people for the compromises necessary in forging a viable peace with Israel.
While he has mostly refused to negotiate, and, when briefly negotiating, has held to positions such as the untenable demand for a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinians, his hand has grown weaker. On one side, as Jared Kushner told the world last week, the Israeli settlement enterprise has gradually been eating up “all the land in the West Bank… and the odds of them ever giving it up is unlikely.” And on the other, as emphatically demonstrated by Tuesday’s remarkable events, growing parts of the Arab world are gradually disentangling their own national priorities from those of the intransigent Palestinians.
Abbas’s rejectionism is proving disastrous not only for his people but for ours. It is perfectly sensible to rejoice in the warm goodwill and the commitment to a better shared future on display at the White House, and to simultaneously lament that the leadership of the neighbor on our doorstep is sliding deeper into the embrace of the region’s dark forces.
US presidential adviser Jared Kushner, left, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)
His hand is weakening, and time is running out personally for Abbas, who is now in his mid-80s. But it’s not too late. Like Obama in 2009, the Trump administration and the UAE have now combined to give him another opportunity, by imposing another kind of freeze on a reluctant Netanyahu: The application of Israeli sovereignty to the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in the Trump peace plan has been indefinitely suspended — until 2024, according to well-informed sources who spoke to The Times of Israel in recent days.
The US has been repeatedly inviting Abbas to reengage, to advocate for his people’s interests. Isn’t that supposed to be his very purpose? In Abbas’s insistent absence, as Kushner elaborated in his strikingly candid briefing last week, “We drew what we thought was a realistic map… We played the ball as it lies, right?”
I wonder what was going through Mahmoud Abbas’s head on Tuesday. Does he really want to throw in his people’s lot with Gaza’s terrorists (which saw fit to fire rockets into Israel during and after the ceremony), Hezbollah and Tehran? Is he waiting for Trump to lose, and if so in the hope that a president Biden would do what exactly? Does he have any kind of a strategy?
Was he even watching?
An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.