Mahmoud Abbas inspired great hope that peace was finally possible when he
succeeded Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Because the
gap between those expectations and his performance keeps growing, along with his
penchant for finding excuses instead of opportunities, he is arguably an even
bigger disappointment than the unrepentant old terrorist.
Arafat would ever make a real peace, but not so Abbas, who earned respect as the
only PLO leader to stand up to Arafat and oppose violence as a negotiating
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hailed him as his “partner for
peace,” as did his two predecessors. Under Abbas’s leadership, the PA instituted
economic and political reforms, won praise for security cooperation with Israel,
made a serious effort to clean up the Arafat-era corruption, and began building
the institutions of statehood.
Abbas had a very willing collaborator in
prime minister Ehud Olmert, but walked away from the best deal ever tabled by an
Israeli leader, saying it wasn’t enough, even though he knew that a more
conservative government could come in and withdraw the offer.
precisely what happened with the election of Netanyahu, who did not share his
predecessor’s enthusiasm for peace-making and preferred a slow, drawn-out
By the time Abbas was finally ready to discuss Olmert’s offer,
it was too late; his insistence that Netanyahu resume talks where they’d left
off was a non-starter. All he achieved was to prove the axiom about Palestinians
missing opportunities (Israelis aren’t immune, but are not in the Palestinians’
As noted in an earlier column, Abbas has a penchant for climbing
out on limbs – sometimes with President Barack Obama’s
Making matters worse, when opportunities to come down come
along, he tends to climb even higher.
The latest example is this week’s
formal announcement – reportedly to the surprise of some of his own colleagues –
that he will seek UN membership in September. He claims this will enhance
efforts to renew negotiations with Israel, but knows it is more likely to have
the opposite effect.
It’s just his latest blunder. He claimed his
power-sharing deal with Hamas would also advance chances for peace, although it
is backfiring. In the past he had demanded an Israeli settlement freeze.
Netanyahu, under US pressure, reluctantly agreed to a limited, 10-month
construction halt, but Abbas dithered for nine months and then walked out when
Netanyahu wouldn’t extend the freeze.
Abbas makes no secret of his
disdain for Netanyahu, but it’s hard to understand why he seems so persistent in
undermining his critical relationship with the United States, which is essential
to any peace deal.
OBAMA, WHO seems to want peace more than the parties
themselves, is strongly opposed to both Abbas initiatives, and is personally
lobbying foreign leaders to his side. He has threatened to veto the unilateral
statehood bid when it comes before the Security Council, and his UN ambassador,
Susan Rice, has warned there is “no greater threat” to US support and funding
for the UN than its endorsement of the Palestinian move.
Hamas deal – if it is ever consummated – could land the PA on the State
Department terror list, where Hamas is already ensconced.
A report by the
Congressional Research Service, noting that the US has approved more than $4
billion in aid for the Palestinians, said the Hamas power-sharing agreement
could lead to a cutoff of all such aid.
Some Abbas aides have been saying
that Abbas would like to climb down from all those limbs, but can’t figure out
how to do so without looking weak.
At various times he has described his
moves – settlement freeze, Hamas deal, UN strategy – as ways of putting pressure
on Israel to come to the peace table, but they appear to be having the opposite
Abbas, however, is not alone in missing
Netanyahu’s commitment to peace is also questionable. He
may say he wants unconditional talks, but has presented his own
He has taken Jerusalem off the table, which is a deal killer;
insists that Abbas publicly declare his acceptance of the Jewish State, which
the Palestinian leader bluntly refuses to do; rejects the 1967 lines as a
reference point for talks, and demands an indefinite Israeli security presence
in the Jordan valley.
Obama may be able to get the two sides to
temporarily resume talks in order to head off the UN collision, but without
fundamental changes by either leader, it is likely to be nothing more than a
face-saving way for Abbas to climb down from his limb.
But what sent him
up there in the first place? Does he really want to make peace or does he, like
Arafat, desire to appear to be a peacemaker while seeking a way to avoid going
down in history as the Palestinian leader who made peace with Israel and gave up
all claims to all parts of Palestine?