Encountering peace: Abbas is still the leader who can make peace

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have not been the cause of the recent round of violence, though it is easy for the Israeli government and prime minister to point a finger at him.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses UN General Assembly (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses UN General Assembly
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s start with the basics – Mahmoud Abbas is not popular among his own people. He is way down in the polls and if elections were held now, he would not win. In the eyes of his own people he has lost his legitimacy – and not only because he was elected in 2005 for what was supposed to be a four-year term and there have not been elections since (let’s recall that Oslo was a five-year interim deal, and that was in 1993). Abbas has little legitimacy because he has failed to deliver on the promise that he made to his people following the second intifada – an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state without using violence.
Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have not been the cause of the recent round of violence. It is easy for the Israeli government and prime minister to point a finger at him and accuse him of everything wrong that happens in the country. Yes it is true that some of his remarks in his UN speech and other statements that he made recently were horrible and were perceived as lies and as incitement by Israel. No Palestinian would see them as lies. If you were a Palestinian living in the West Bank how would you describe the legal situation there – two peoples living under two separate legal regimes – one for Israelis and one for Palestinians? The Israelis enjoy complete freedom; massive building funded by the government; infrastructure of a 21st century modern state; a criminal legal system that protects Israelis even when they are the attackers of Palestinians – Jewish terrorists who killed who are not arrested even two months after their crime; Israeli control of land, roads, electricity, water, etc. The Palestinians are living in small islands of semi-control by their own government. Their territory is violated constantly by the Israeli military. They have control over almost nothing. They have no defined borders, no control over external borders, they need permits issued by Israel to their holiest places and even their population registry is controlled by Israel. From their perspective if that is not a new form of apartheid then what is? For months the experts on Arab affairs in Israel (including me) have been warning that the territories are boiling.
In particular we have spoken about the frustration of the masses from zero political movement, no hope of changing the reality on the ground, economic stagnation, high youth unemployment and increased settlement building.
In addition to this have been crimes committed by Israelis against Palestinians, particularly by violent settlers, that have gone without prosecution and convictions.
The defense minister even admitted that Israel knows who killed the Dawabshe family, but cannot arrest them. Add to this the perception of Palestinians that Israel is gradually changing its policies on the Temple Mount that Palestinians see as the eventual step of transferring the place to Jews (even though this has no truth behind it). Perceptions create consciousness which change realities. Abbas called to defend al Aksa against the “defaming feet of the Jews,” referring to the boots of the soldiers and police who entered the holy mosque without taking off their shoes, as required by Islam.
The majority of Palestinians do not want a new intifada.
This is quite clear. They have too much to lose and they are aware of the dangers. I spent many hours pleading with influential people from both sides to return the calm. It needs both sides to agree and to work together. I knew that Netanyahu would not call Abbas and say, “Let’s work together to calm the situation and then let’s talk about how we return to negotiations.” I pleaded with people to convince Abbas to pick up the phone and call Netanyahu – I doubt if he did. During crises like this, we need leaders who are big enough to overcome their anger and frustration and look beyond the present. We don’t have that kind of leader – on either side. On the Palestinian side they say, “Netanyahu doesn’t want peace, he is only interested in expanding settlements.” In Israel they say the Abbas doesn’t want peace, he won’t recognize us and the Palestinians cheer the death of every Jew.” Both sides are right in what they are saying, but they are also both wrong. Netanyahu does not want to see more dead bodies – not Israeli nor Palestinian. I also don’t believe that Abbas wants to see more dead bodies. But more dead bodies is what we will have if they don’t – together – work to calm the situation.
To the Palestinians I say there is no truth to what you believe the Israelis are planning to do regarding al-Aksa. There is no Israeli plan to destroy the mosques or to allow Jewish prayer there. To the Israelis I say the Palestinians do not want another intifada, they don’t want to destroy all that has been achieved.
To both sides I say it can all collapse and degenerate into another round of horrendous violence. The violence can end now, but it can also get out of control. It is not too late. It must end now and then the parties have to figure out how to get back to serious genuine negotiations for peace and security – for ending the occupation and creating a partnership for life of our two peoples.
Will this turn into another intifada? It could. It could easily slide down the slippery slope of violence until it becomes a force too powerful to stop. Right now it doesn’t look that way (yet). It seems that Palestinian security forces have not joined in the direct confrontations with the Israeli army. On Monday night Abbas convened all of his security chiefs and instructed them to prevent clashes and return the calm. The clash points remain the arena for relatively few Palestinians – the masses have not joined in. The primary weapons remain the stones, fire-bombs and knives, and not guns and bombs. The number of deaths is still relatively small (although every single one is a tragedy).
I don’t think that Palestinian society has the energy for another destructive intifada. There is too much to lose – too much was built over the past years to risk losing. One just needs to see all of the building all around the West Bank in Palestinian cities and villages to understand how much has been invested over the past years.
Now the Jewish holidays are finally over (way too many holidays) and people are going back to work.
That includes some 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. Some 50,000-60,000 work-permit holders, another 25,000 who work in settlements and another 20,000 day workers without permits. I imagine that Israel will not cancel those permits (even though they are suspended during the holidays). It is citrus picking season, construction needs in Israel are climbing and the IDF understands that the best way to fuel the fire is to deny Palestinians the ability to feed their families.
Ending this round of violence is not enough to prevent the next. The parties must return to the table, but the table has to have content on it. Negotiations cannot simply begin from the beginning again. There must be terms of reference and there must be a time period. If Abbas did deliver a genuine peace agreement to his people, he would overnight regain his legitimacy and his credibility. If Netanyahu delivered a peace agreement his government would probably collapse, but he would have the support of a majority in the Knesset and among the people of Israel. That is what they should do. That is probably not what they will do.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel is published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.