As Abbas vows not to stand in the next elections, his PA has embarked on an intensified campaign of delegitimization against Israel and criticism of the US for not meeting the demand for a full settlement freeze. Any lingering diplomatic hopes have now evaporated.
Six weeks ago, in a meeting arranged to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly, Barack Obama sought to bring the weight of his presidency to bear upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations," the US president told the pair. "It is time to move forward."
Despite that presidential admonition, despite both sides' purported acknowledgement of the urgent need for progress and despite the relentless shuttle diplomacy in our region by Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his special envoy George Mitchell, Israel and the PA are still not talking.
But while Netanyahu insists he is ready to enter a substantive negotiating process right away without preconditions, the PA is not only requiring a full settlement freeze before it deigns to reenter talks, it is also presiding over an intensified campaign of delegitimization against Israel and criticism of the United States for not meeting the demand.
On the very day that Obama was meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas in New York, the PA/Fatah TV program The Best Home was broadcasting a segment in which the host asked a young Palestinian interviewee where he was from. When the boy, perhaps 10 or 11, wearing a purple and pink tracksuit top, smilingly replied that he was (impossibly) from Lod, the host corrected him: "You mean you are from Lod, but you live here [in Ramallah]. Never mind, my dear. Allah willing, the day will come when we will return to Lod and to all the areas they have occupied."
Three weeks later, PLO Executive Committee member Salah Rafat was using Fatah TV to deny that a Jewish Temple ever stood in Jerusalem, and to accuse Israel of "stealing" the Palestinian "national heritage - from cuisine to clothing to architecture."
Then this week, after Clinton was so bold as to congratulate Netanyahu for his "unprecedented" restraint on settlement building - "no new starts, for example" - the attacks turned highly personal.
In a remarkably nasty article in the PA's Al-Hayat al-Jadida on Sunday, headlined "Clinton, why must you lie?" Omar Hilmi al-Ghul, an adviser to the PA's much-US-admired Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, asserted that the secretary was "twisting the truth and accusing the Palestinians of being an obstacle" to peace. He asked viciously: "Why, Mrs. Hillary? How much did the Zionists bribe you, and what weight does AIPAC carry in your decisions and inclinations?"
"Your lies can deceive only a few simpletons who have been led astray," Ghul went on, according to a translation provided by MEMRI, "but the overwhelming majority of people can clearly see the truth."
"Obama should fire her," declared columnist Talal 'Awkal in another PA-affiliated newspaper, Al-Ayyam, the same day, adding for good measure that Mitchell should resign in protest at the "great deception" Clinton had perpetrated by purportedly backing down over the settlement freeze.
Al-Hayat al-Jadida ran a cartoon that day, Palestinian Media Watch reported, "reiterating a longstanding Palestinian claim that the US is controlled by Jews. It shows an Uncle Sam figure looking into a mirror held by a caricature of a hook-nosed religious Jew, wearing a hat with a Star of David. Instead of seeing his own reflection, the American sees the Jew in the mirror."
By these standards, the accusation by Abbas's own veteran spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh, that the US was "going back on its promises" by not demanding a complete settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, was mild indeed.
THE FURIOUS media attacks and the hardening of the PA's position on negotiations - remember, Abbas and his teams were meeting incessantly with former prime minister Olmert and his negotiators, even as settlement construction continued with no promise of an eventual halt - suggest a deepening siege mentality in Abbas's administration.
Now vowing not to stand in the PA elections he has scheduled for January - a decision he insisted on Thursday night was "not debatable" - Abbas is broadcasting a kind of injured righteousness that defies logic. Battered by Hamas and even his own loyalists for initially agreeing to shelve the Goldstone Report, bitter that the US failed to extract the full and immediate settlement freeze it had sought from Netanyahu, and with Arab states both echoing an insistence on a freeze and doing little to warm up their own relations with Israel, Abbas is throwing up his hands.
But even a modicum of self-examination would suggest that he has only himself to blame. Negotiating intensively with Olmert, with the Bush administration offering support, and with the Arab world (albeit reluctantly) backing the Annapolis framework, Abbas ultimately chose to reject Olmert's remarkably generous peace terms. His real problem now is not the publicized lament about ongoing settlement construction preventing a resumption of talks. It is, rather, his knowledge that, were the talks to resume, Netanyahu would offer him less. Abbas, in short, missed the boat.
In just a few weeks, runs the message from Ramallah, the Palestinians will have the opportunity to choose a new captain. Abbas, if he holds firm to his pledge not to compete, will presumably heave a personal sigh of relief, freed from a job he may never truly have wanted. His departure will be his people's loss, he may well assure himself. But, with time, it will become clearer how greatly he failed them, and failed us.
AROUND NETANYAHU there are influential figures who are none-too concerned by the pre-negotiation deadlock and the fading of Abbas. After all, they argue, the prime minister is strong and popular, and the day-to-day security situation, notwithstanding Hamas's newly extended missile capabilities, is relatively stable. If Israel now has to wait a little longer for a truly moderate Palestinian leader, they conclude, so be it.
Others in senior coalition positions strongly disagree. They regard the current calm as illusory, and argue that the status quo works against Israel in a region where Islamic extremism and hostility to Israel are taking ever greater hold.
That is emphatically the position, too, of the Obama administration, which is adamant that Israeli and Palestinian interests are best served by a speedy resumption of talks and intensive progress toward an accord.
The administration, furthermore, feels aggrieved at the Palestinian criticism - just like its predecessors, it has always made clear its opposition to settlement expansion but, it insists, it did not set its demand for a freeze as a precondition for resuming talks.
And it feels aggrieved at certain Israeli criticisms, too. Specifically, it rejects the assertions by some sources in the Netanyahu government that it sought to disown president Bush's April 2004 letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon, which stated: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949..."
When Clinton was declaring, five months ago, that the administration had inherited no "official record" providing for ongoing natural growth at the settlements, she was alluding not to that letter - whose validity is in no doubt - but to certain discussions that were never confirmed in writing, the administration notes.
And furthermore, nothing in President Obama's positions and policies contradicts the thrust of that letter. Obama, it is argued, has not ruled out "'67-plus" - the notion of a permanent accord that leaves Israel larger than its pre-1967 dimensions. And incidentally, some in the administration go on to assert, the Bush administration didn't actually rule in "'67-plus" - not even in the 2004 letter, which, it can be argued, albeit at a stretch, may be providing for nothing more than land swaps.
By extension, the point is made, setting Obama alongside Meretz on the Israeli political spectrum, as I did in this column last week, misrepresents the thrust of his administration's policies regarding the Palestinians. Broadly speaking, indeed, it seems reasonable to acknowledge that a fairer siting might have been closer to the flexible Olmert's Kadima - although the administration's forceful calls for a complete freeze to include east Jerusalem and the settlement blocs would not have sat easily even with Olmert.
WHATEVER THE respective attitudes to a permanent accord, however, the sorry truth for now is that the US, for all its energetic diplomacy, cannot so much as get the players back into the same room. Indeed, that full freeze demand, including east Jerusalem, has proven as counterproductive as critics, this columnist included, predicted: The US took a position that even the much-moderated Netanyahu was never going to accept, a position that raised Palestinian expectations. While Abbas has been arguing that he can hardly come back to the peace table under terms less advantageous than those the US was attempting to impose on its ally Israel, Washington has been searching, so far in vain, for a means to help him down from the tree. Now Abbas may be gone for good.
Obama's various envoys have run into an Israeli prime minister working to improve daily life in the West Bank but ready only to weigh a temporary settlement freeze, and they have been unable to square this with a Palestinian leadership insisting on a complete freeze, right now. In her various meetings this week, Clinton has been trying to find a middle ground: encouraging Netanyahu for the steps he has taken, reasserting to Arab leaders US opposition to current and future settlement activity - "We would like to see everything ended forever," she was quoted as saying on Wednesday - but urging the Palestinians not to insist on a freeze as a precondition for talks. Plainly, it hasn't been working.
Complicating matters is the fact that even those Arab countries most ostensibly committed to an accelerated peace process and normalized relations with Israel - Jordan and Egypt - are also stridently supporting the demand for a full and immediate freeze. Those two countries also left Abbas shaken by joining in with the wider Arab criticism of him for his handling of the Goldstone Report. In the words of one expert observer, "They threw him under the bus."
And there he lies for now - a much weakened Palestinian leader, who holds the key to resumed peace talks with Israel. A much weakened Palestinian leader, whose progress with Israel toward peace and stability, it should be noted, is deemed critical by Obama if concerted regional pressure is to be brought to bear on Iran to thwart its nuclear program. A much weakened Palestinian leader, whose cause and concerns are being marginalized by Iran's undimmed nuclear ambition and its relentless arming of Hamas and Hizbullah, as further exemplified by this week's Israeli interception of the weapons-laden Francop. A much-weakened Palestinian leader who now says he'd much rather just go home, leaving who knows what behind him.