What does Abbas really want?

Washington Watch: The PA president needs the world’s help to get down from the tree he climbed up.

June 29, 2011 23:49
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

Mahmoud Abbas 311. (photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)


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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.

Few expected 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 tool.

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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.

This is 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 approach.

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’ league).

As noted in an earlier column, Abbas has a penchant for climbing out on limbs – sometimes with President Barack Obama’s encouragement.


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.

Moreover, the 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 effect.

Abbas, however, is not alone in missing opportunities.

Netanyahu’s commitment to peace is also questionable. He may say he wants unconditional talks, but has presented his own conditions.

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?


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