by Mitchell Plitnick
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with US President Barack Obama this week, following in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the month. But unlike Netanyahu, Abbas is a much less heralded or even well-known figure in Washington. And, above all, he is a man with far fewer options.
With a deadline looming at the end of April by which US Secretary of State John Kerry had promised first to broker a permanent Israel-Palestine agreement and, later, a more modest goal of a framework for continuing talks, Abbas arrived in Washington with little to offer and less room to make further concessions. It’s a familiar position for the Palestinian leader, one he has been in since 2004 when he assumed the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) upon the death of Yasir Arafat.
Arafat was a universally respected leader to the Palestinian people, even, grudgingly, among his rivals; a fighter who had proven his worth in conflict. Abbas, by contrast, had long been Arafat’s number two, but he was more intellectual, having been an advocate, a resistance politician and a fundraiser for most of his time in exile and then after his return to the Palestinian Territories in 1994.
Abbas was watching the West Bank disappear inch by inch even well before he took office, while, since 2006, he has seen Gaza grow even more impoverished under Israel’s siege while Hamas manages what little there is to run internally. In recent years, he has faced political infighting in Fatah, from both a new generation of activists and older rivals like Mohammed Dahlan, who is currently trying once again to make a comeback. Abbas has consistently been under siege himself, and has stuck fast to his credo of diplomatic, rather than violent, responses to Israeli actions. He is no Gandhi; he simply understands that violence is not an arena where the Palestinians are likely to win.
But Abbas has handicaps of his own, beyond the political, economic, social, and military impediments any Palestinian leader would face. He is dogged, as was Arafat, by the corruption in the Palestinian Authority and by the sense that has been building since the mid-1990s among Palestinians that the PA in general is a tool of Israel and the United States; administering the occupation in the major and mid-size Palestinian cities, thus relieving Israel of much of that burden, while being a “partner for peace” rather than an advocate for the Palestinian cause.
Abbas feels the weight of these much more powerfully because he does not have anything like the prestige Arafat had. Yet he shares some of Arafat’s weaknesses in his dealings with Israeli and US politics and how that plays out in the negotiations that drag on year after year, when they are held at all. An example emerged as he left Washington this week.
The Israelis have been making noises about the next and final release of prisoners that they agreed to last year, as a way to restart negotiations. Some members of the Israeli government (crucially, not including Prime Minister Netanyahu) are saying that the prisoner release will not happen unless Abbas agrees to a framework agreement. The prisoner release is slated to occur a full month before the deadline Kerry imposed on the framework agreement.
Abbas, not surprisingly, urged Israel to complete the prisoner release, “…because this will give a very solid impression about the seriousness of these efforts to achieve peace.” In the wake of that statement, even the so-called “moderate” Tzipi Livni, Israeli’s Minister of Justice who is leading negotiations with the Palestinians, reiterated the conditioning of the release on Abbas’ agreement to the framework.
Abbas unwittingly helped the Israelis set him up. No one in Israel or the Occupied Territories believes Kerry’s effort is going to lead to an agreement, even if he can ram his framework through and extend the talks beyond the end of April. For months now, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been jockeying to avoid being blamed for what they know is the inevitable failure of Kerry’s efforts. Abbas handed this round to Israel on a platter.
Netanyahu can now show the world that, by Abbas’ own standard, he is ready to make the “painful choices” for peace by releasing Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands” in order to keep the talks alive, even fighting his own people to do it.
Can Abbas do likewise? It seems unlikely, unless the framework won’t include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” (the Palestinians long ago recognized Israel’s right to exist, which is all any state recognizes in any other state). That is something Netanyahu has insisted on and, though downplayed lately by Kerry, it is a position the United States has accepted.
Indeed, Netanyahu laid bare this strategy when, on Tuesday, he called on his ministers and Likud leaders to refrain from making statements that would make Israel appear to be the intransigent party in the talks. It was, in fact, in response to a question about the release of Palestinian prisoners that Netanyahu responded with this: “At this very moment it is becoming clear that the Palestinians are the balkers. Instead of disinclination, we should be demonstrating willingness. I suggest that now we let everybody realize who the reluctant one is, and let this perception take root in the international community.”
Netanyahu may be well off the mark regarding “this moment,” but he has never really been concerned about the international community. He is concerned about the United States. He is well aware that if he can create a narrative, as Ehud Barak did after the failure of the Camp David II talks, where Israel is willing to go along with the US peacemaking plan and the Palestinians refuse, he will win US and Congressional opinion, and with it at least parts of Europe and other key countries. And Abbas gave him the opening to do it.
Mahmoud Abbas is not Yasir Arafat, and it could well be argued that neither of these two very different men was the right one for the job of trying to win Palestinian freedom from Israeli domination. But both played their part in crafting a strategy that depended on the Unites States. Abbas has spoken of moving to the international arena if talks fail. But if he does, he is likely paving the way for the next Palestinian leader to take the stage and try it his way.