Washington Watch: What does Abbas really want?

What’s puzzling is why Abbas seems to be abetting Netanyahu and the rejectionists.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mahmoud Abbas’ rush to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize the state of Palestinian within the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and set a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank raises questions about his true intentions.
The Palestinian president made his move just as new Israeli elections were called, despite the urging of the Jordanian government and others to wait. Abbas watches Israeli politics very closely and knows that his action could well swing the election toward the rejectionist Right that opposes Palestinian statehood. Could that be what he wants to happen? If he really wants statehood, why help elect Israeli politicians who oppose it? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the snap election because he thought he’d be a cinch for a fourth term, is facing problems from his Right and Left.
He may have endorsed the concept of the two-state solution in 2009 but has done nothing to advance it, not making it the official policy of his government, not getting the backing of his cabinet or his own Likud party.
Ongoing settlement expansion seems deliberately aimed at making a two-state solution harder to achieve.
He has made an election alliance with Naftali Bennett of the religious-nationalist Bayit Yehudi Party, an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood. Bennett called it “suicide” for Israel and said, “I won’t give territory in the Land of Israel to Arabs.” Instead he advocates more settlement expansion and annexation of most of the West Bank.
Abbas’ UN strategy has been a rallying point for Netanyahu and the Right, who are painting the consequences in dire terms. Netanyahu would prefer the status quo and prolonged negotiations so long as they go nowhere; he is a creative procrastinator with no shortage of excuses for delay. First the Iran nuclear problem must be solved, then Islamic State threat, then the Syrian civil war. The lack of Palestinian unity was an impediment until Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement, and then unity became the excuse.
What’s puzzling is why Abbas seems to be abetting Netanyahu and the rejectionists.
On the other side is a surging Center-Left coalition seriously committed to the two-state approach, including the only two supporters of that concept in the Netanyahu government before they were fired to make way for the new elections.
Tzipi Livni, former justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, head of the small Hatnua Party, has joined forces with the Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog.
Yair Lapid, the fired finance minister, heads the Yesh Atid Party. All three support Palestinian statehood and want to accelerate peace negotiations.
If there’s one thing on which Israelis agree across the political spectrum it is their opposition to a settlement with the Palestinians imposed from the outside. But maybe that’s Abbas’ real objective: help elect a far-right Israeli government that will only further antagonize its European and American allies, to the point they will advance their own peace plans and pressure Israel to accept it. In that way Abbas does not have to negotiate with the Israelis and open himself to charges by his own extremists that he gave away Palestinian land, and can say any compromises were forced on him.
Because if he is serious about making peace and he feels Netanyahu is not, he should be talking to the Israeli voters.
Not with the incitement and threats we’ve been hearing out of him much lately but with a serious and realistic proposal that has the backing of the major Arab states.
This is not the time for him to make threats but to make a bold offer to give the Israeli public a chance to respond.
There’s a precedent. In 1999 voters threw out Netanyahu in large part because they felt the chances for peace had improved over the previous three years and that he was blocking them. Voters have to be convinced that once again he is the obstacle to peace and with new leadership like Herzog and Livni the chances could dramatically improve.
One of the reasons Netanyahu gave for firing Livni was that she spoke against his wishes to Abbas about reviving the failed peace talks that had been organized by Secretary of State John Kerry. Now she’s being attacked again from the Right for talking to Kerry about blocking Abbas’ UN initiative. She and former president Shimon Peres told Kerry that if the Palestinian resolution were to come up before the Israeli election it would only help the Israeli far Right and damage the chances for peace. The secretary has been pressing Abbas and his allies to modify his proposal and postpone any vote until after the March 17 elections.
The French, Germans and British are growing impatient with what they consider – not without reason – Israeli foot dragging and are working on their own resolution to accelerate the path to statehood. Some European parliaments or governments have announced their own recognition of Palestine.
Netanyahu’s response has been to remind Europeans that they were responsible for the Holocaust and to tell Israelis that the whole world is against the Jews and only he can protect them from the appeasers. His supporters have accused Livni and Herzog of surrendering to international pressure and paving the way to “Hamastan.”
Bennett accused her of “political sabotage” for speaking to Kerry.
This has been called the “Seinfeld election” because it is about nothing. Far from it. Israel is at a crossroad in its history.
It is increasingly isolated, personal relations between the prime minister and many key foreign leaders are badly strained and allies have grown weary of the failure of both sides to make peace. The status quo is not sustainable, and just about everyone realizes that – except for Netanyahu and a delusional Israeli Right.
Many observers fear that the Palestinians will turn to violence if they see Israel taking more land, building more settlements and dashing hopes for statehood.
This could be an historic election. Abbas can help influence its direction. Does he really want statehood or does he want to keep the issue alive, avoid the responsibility of running a real government, swing the election toward the far Right and wait for the outside world to impose his terms on Israel?