For peace, Abbas’s long-standing rejectionism has to be defeated

Mahmoud Abbas has had many missed opportunities in negotiations with Israel during his time as PA president.

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adjusts his glasses as he listens during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured), in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021.  (photo credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adjusts his glasses as he listens during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured), in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021.
(photo credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has a long career of making promises that disappoint and threats that do not reach fruition. Nevertheless, the demand by Abbas during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 that Israel withdraw to the 1967 boundaries within one year or threaten repercussions, appears to come from a different place.

Abbas is at an all-time low in popularity. His failed Palestinian elections gambit, coupled with the murder of critic Nizar Banat and subsequent clampdown on demonstrations have meant that many are calling for the end of the Abbas era. A poll published last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that almost 80% of the Palestinian public demands the resignation of Abbas.

While many might see Abbas’s speech as a way to engender favorability at home, it is also the cry of a leader who knows that his strategy is failing. Abbas’ tenure has been full of missed opportunities for his people. He firmly rejected the overly generous offer by prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, claiming in an interview with The Washington Post a few months later that his people were in no rush as “in the West Bank we have a good reality...  the people are living a normal life.”

He then demanded that Israel freeze building in Israeli communities to arrive at further negotiations, which they subsequently did. Yet, Abbas still stayed away from the negotiating table.

There are many other examples of failures to engage with Israel or return to the peace process and Abbas turned them all down. For many years, this left many Israeli senior officials and decision-makers to understand that Abbas is too embedded in rejectionism to move an inch toward them. While there was some hope that Abbas would be more amenable than Yasser Arafat, that idea quickly evaporated, despite his better understanding of diplomacy and the language of international relations.

In fact, it could be argued that Abbas has reversed any gains made by the Palestinians under Arafat, and the very recognition of Israel, the type of mutual recognition that was the foundation of the Oslo Accords, is now under threat.

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely at the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, New York, US, September 24, 2021. (credit: JOHN ANGELILLO/POOL VIA REUTERS) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech remotely at the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, New York, US, September 24, 2021. (credit: JOHN ANGELILLO/POOL VIA REUTERS)

There are a number of approaches that Israel and its leaders could take. Israel could go down the endless tunnel of greater concessions and try to appease Abbas by teasing him away from his extolled brink. History has demonstrated where this will lead.

Another path could be for Israel to use this as an opportunity to defeat Palestinian rejectionism once and for all. It could embark on the Israel victory route and take stronger measures against Abbas and his rejectionist cadres. These figures still believe that they will ultimately pummel Israel into submission and eventually rid themselves of the Jewish state, however unlikely that might seem to many.

The opposite can and should be enacted. Israel should now be thinking about how it can break Abbas’s will to continue his rejectionism: diplomatic, legal, economic and violent. One just has to listen to Abbas refer to the creation of Israel as a Nakba, a catastrophe, and look at the maps on the wall behind him as he recorded his UN speech which do not feature Israel, to hear and witness that his ultimate goal is to turn back time and reverse the reality on the ground.

This should be shocking to every single Israeli, but many see this as harmless or irrelevant background noise or banter. However, on the Palestinian street, since the beginning of the year there has been a constant talk of a “Third Intifada.” Israel witnessed how quickly the fuse was lit to take advantage of the legal dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Israel is faced with a choice: Look back after there is further bloodshed, enacted or goaded on by a leader who has moved his people further away from peace, or instead the Jewish state can act now. It needs to raise and not lower the pressure on Abbas. He is teetering and the UN speech demonstrated this more than anything else. He is irrelevant to the vast majority of Palestinians, many of whom dream of a better tomorrow, so he should be made irrelevant for Israel.

By taking a strong hand against Abbas and his stalwarts in the Palestinian Authority, Israel can ensure that rejectionism comes to an end and the cycle of seemingly never-ending conflict and violence is ended. This will have obvious benefits for Israel, but it will be even better for the Palestinians. It will bring about the badly needed peace and prosperity, and allow them to build up their polity without the distraction of the conflict and for the betterment of the people.

This would be a win-win situation for both peoples, but first Abbas and his impermeable form of rejectionism must be defeated.

The writer is the director of the Middle East Forum.