Abbas? Yes, He Can!

On July 29th last year State Secretary Kerry announced that within nine months of negotiations a comprehensive peace agreement would be signed between Israel and the Palestinian state-to-be. Several months ago he began plain with the terms, committing to something more modest, ranging between a “framework agreement” to an “agreement on principles” by the end of March 2014. As the deadline approaches, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas held two not-particularly positive meetings with President Obama, and now it seems that the sides are gearing up for something entirely different. Should negotiations fail, the sides are expected to return to the old and familiar Blame Game. Each side will recruit all its potential advocacy and PR teams to prove its own good intentions, and that it was actually the other side that is guilty of the failed peace talks. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have a clear interest to shape the narrative and be the one who determines the blame issue. This will have unpleasant international implications for the one that’s singled out, as well as implications on the composition of the Israeli coalition.

It will be difficult and probably impossible to objectively rule whether Netanyahu was the one sticking to his conservatism and well-known trickery, or whether it has been Abbas who was needlessly stubborn in the current round of talks. That is why a significant portion of Netanyahu’s messages would focus on Abbas’ conduct thus far and vice versa. Likud and Jewish-Home ministers will remind us of Abbas and his holocaust denying PhD, of how he’d turned down the far-reaching offer made by former Prime Minister Olmert, and other will remind us that since 2005 there were no elections for the Palestinian presidency, trying to present Abbas as a weak and illegitimate leader. Indeed, Abbas is far from being perfect and there were instances in which he may have been braver (unlike politicians elsewhere, of course, who are always remarkably consistent, and never hesitate before making historical decisions). Nevertheless, before the Blame Game commences, one should get to know the actors. In the case of Netanyahu, for good or bad, the Israeli public probably knows with whom it’s dealing with. In the case of Abbas, it’s better to recall some of what he’s said and done, beyond what the far right is likely going to highlight:

  • Abbas opposed Arafat’s explicit or implicit support of violence. In the midst of the second intifada, he condemned violence on moral grounds and acted against it. Former Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Sharon, Dov Weisglass, and Defense Minister, Mofaz, attest that following Abbas’ actions against the Palestinian violent struggle, his premiership under Arafat came to an end. Since he was elected President of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas worked in close security cooperation with Israel. Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs, Maj. General (Res.) Amos Gilad clarified: “We succeed in our war against terror thanks to our security relations with the Palestinians, and the opposition of Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad to terror”.
  • Already in his days as a student in Syria, Abbas spoke of a compromise with Israel and adopted positions, which were highly controversial among Palestinians at the time.
  • In his campaign running up for presidency, Abbas’ messages were focused on negotiations and the Two State solution as the strategy with Israel, unlike more militant messages picked up by rivaling candidates.
  • In an interview to Israeli Channel 2, Abbas made it clear that he no longer considers his home town, Tzfat (Safed), a part of Palestine. He spoke of his desire to visit it— but only as a tourist.
  • Abbas condemned calls for a total boycott of Israel. He supports a limited boycott on settlements, but opposes attempts to de-legitimize Israel itself.
  • He agreed to a gradual withdrawal from the West Bank and to land swaps which would practically necessitate the evacuation of only about 100,000 settlers. On the Jordan Valley he proposed to put an international force led by the U.S. or by NATO, and agreed to having no Palestinian army, in order to adhere to Israel’s security concerns.
  • Regarding the holocaust, he maintained on several occasions, including in an interview given to Haaretz on 2003, that it “was a terrible, unforgivable crime against the Jewish nation, a crime against humanity that cannot be accepted by humankind. The holocaust was a terrible thing and nobody can claim I denied it”.
  • Abbas never said “no” to the offer of former Prime Minister Olmert. Olmert stated that publicly and in private meetings he’s held—I myself was present in one of them. Actually, Abbas’ request to examine Olmert’s offer with the PLO leadership was completely reasonable. The founder of Israel, Ben Gurion, also had to discuss the UN General Assembly partition plan and put it to a vote in the provisional government, “Minhelet HaAm”, before the declaration of independence on May 14th.

Needless to say, some of these positions aren’t popular at all in the Palestinian street, nor does every PLO member accept them. Nevertheless, Abbas repeatedly states them in the media, in meetings with members of Knesset and other dignitaries. Recently he has done so also in a meeting with 300 Israeli students, who were hosted in the Mukata in Ramallah, in an event hosted by the Knesset caucus for Ending the Conflict, in cooperation with the OneVoice movement. Furthermore, he also translates his positions into policies, by preserving tight coordination with the IDF and the Israeli Security Agency.

It is true that Abbas does not accept all the terms suggested by the Israeli government. Admittedly he is also no great fan of Zionism. It is right to criticize him for needless hard headedness over certain matters. However, one cannot take away from him the courage he demonstrated in words and actions. In any case, it will be futile to wallow in the talk of the mutual blame game, and to miss out on the truly important discussion: how to overcome all the challenges and indeed to finally part peacefully from the Palestinians.

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