Israel Pulse

How Abbas can counter Netanyahu’s maneuver

Article Summary
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses time and again the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people to sideline the issues of occupation and settlements.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed,” the Old Testament Book of Proverbs (15:22) states, attributed to King Solomon. "For by stratagems/scheming thou shalt make thy war” (Proverbs 24:6), the wisest of men is said to have counseled. The PLO conducted a military war against Israel that was sorely lacking in council and ended in failure. On the other hand, since the organization exchanged the military front for the diplomatic one, it has displayed fairly impressive planning and scheming capabilities. The dramatic turnaround came in 1988, when Chairman Yasser Arafat convinced the Palestinian National Council to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 242 and to accept a Palestinian state in accordance with the 1967 borderlines with Israel. That was when the road was paved to the 1991 Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestinians, international recognition of the Palestinians’ right to a state and sweeping rejection of Israel’s settlement enterprise.

The struggle for implementation of the Palestinian people’s right to become a full member of the family of nations is nearing a decisive stage. In the coming weeks, US President Barack Obama will decide whether to bring Palestine into the United Nations through the narrow window between the Nov. 8 presidential elections and the changing of the guard at the White House. If the Palestinians lose this round, they risk losing their diplomatic achievements of the past 28 years.

Unfortunately for him, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finds himself facing off against an Israeli champion — if not a world champion — in diplomatic deviousness. Netanyahu lies in wait constantly for his rival to slip up. He knows how to control the international public agenda and to divert any criticism of Israel from the front pages to the back of the book. There’s nothing he will not do to keep Israel out of what he perceives as harm’s way. In September, he accused the Palestinians of “ethnic cleansing” against Jewish West Bank settlers, even as one of his Cabinet ministers, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, heads a party that advocates forcibly moving Israeli citizens of Arab origin to another sovereign state.

On the last day of the Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) Jewish festival on Oct. 23, Netanyahu had a field day with a report that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had arrested four Palestinians who came to celebrate as guests at the traditional Tabernacle hut of a known West Bank settler. The PA understood at once that it had made a foolish decision and rushed to free the four. But for the leader of a state that has been jailing thousands of Palestinians for 49 years without bringing them before a judge, the detention of the four Palestinians “is additional proof of Palestinian recalcitrance.” Netanyahu’s ace is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. That, he argues, is the obstacle to peace, not the occupation and the settlements.

Indeed, Muslims have a hard time recognizing Judaism as a nationality, in addition to a religion. This can be gleaned from a story in a new book by Shimon Shamir summing up 20 years of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. Israel’s one-time ambassador to Egypt and its first ambassador to Jordan recounts in the book that at a meeting in 1980 at Tel Aviv University, Moustafa Khalil, who was at the time the prime minister of Egypt, said that Egyptians perceive Israel as one of the three major religions and not as a national entity. “When we start to establish peace with Israel,” said the senior Egyptian guest, “we are referring to Israel that currently includes Jews and Arabs, to an Israel that could change in the future.” He had no idea how prescient his prophecy was.

Some participants left the encounter understanding that Khalil supports the elimination of the Zionist entity. Shamir interpreted this understanding — this negative reaction — as a reflection of a perpetual Israeli need to have an enemy du jour and as the reflection of an Israeli polarized view of the world as divided between those who champion Israel and those who reject it. Shamir attributes this need to historic traumas. And this need is still very prevalent. It has become a cynical winning tactic of the right. They used it to successfully fudge the fact that the PLO adopted UN Resolution 181 of November 1947, which declared the creation of two states — Jewish and Arab — in British Mandatory Palestine. They have also turned the Oslo Accord, which includes recognition by the PLO of Israel’s “legitimate and political” rights, into an indictment of the Israeli left. Because after all, what is more legitimate than Israel’s right to define itself as a Jewish state, something it has avoided doing thus far, and rightly so?

Abbas is credited with a long series of decisions and courageous, wise steps. Even before he took Arafat’s place, at the height of the second intifada, Abbas publicly expressed reservations about the use of violence; to this day he is praised by top Israeli defense officials for the cooperation of the Palestinian security forces with the Israeli security agencies in the fight against terrorism. The Palestinian leader has several times expressed his desire to renew the work of the Israeli-Palestinian-American committee on the prevention of incitement — but was met with Israeli rejection. He told a Channel 2 TV interviewer in 2012 that he would like to return as a tourist to his hometown of Safed, not as a resident (refugee). Despite strenuous objections by most of his aides, he decided to pay his last respects to the ninth Israeli president, Shimon Peres, by attending his funeral in Jerusalem Sept. 30.

But to quote sports commentators, “Football is only played for 90 minutes.” As the teams near the 90th minute, Abbas must find a magic formula that will refute the claim of Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He must find a pin that will burst this bubble once and for all. It would be enough for him to copy the definition formulated by the left-wing Israeli Meretz Party, which espouses the solution of two states for two people: “Israel is the state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens.” This way he will circumvent the landmine planted by Netanyahu of excluding Israel’s Palestinian residents from their state. After all, Meretz is a Zionist party, whose platform notes that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, and should remain so.

Abbas should reiterate Khalil’s remark, “We know you are very attached to your tradition, your history and you really should be proud of them,” and then sum up with the words, “We share with you this kind of pride.” And we, Israelis and Palestinians, can only hope that such a partnership is still possible and that there is no more need for devious planning.

Found in: two-state solution, settlements, plo, oslo accord, meretz, mahmoud abbas, israeli occupation, benjamin netanyahu

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.


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