For Abbas, it’s not too late to negotiate

Israel’s next prime minister should not give up on meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and reaching a peace agreement, even if it means a limited one to be implemented only in the West Bank.

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the meeting of the Palestinian Central Council, Ramallah, West Bank, Aug. 15, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Sep 23, 2018

For several days now, the Trump administration has been imposing all sorts of budget cuts on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even canceling the funding of activities intended to bring young Palestinians and Israelis together. Nevertheless, with just a few days until he is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly meeting, it looks like Abbas is convinced that he is on the right path and that he is comfortable with it. Abbas is proud of his involvement in the Oslo Accord. He believes that this agreement was of enormous importance, and that it altered the situation throughout the region. He said that if there ever comes a time, when the Palestinians conclude that they can no longer continue with their commitments, the implications will be dire. And now, as then, Abbas cannot understand what Palestinians and Israelis with no interest in peace really hope to achieve. What is their alternative? The total annihilation of the other? Of themselves?

Abbas has a hard time understanding the Israeli government’s policy toward the Gaza Strip. It was once agreed that the Palestinians could establish a port along the Gaza coast, as well as an airport. Now there is talk of a port in Cyprus and an airport in Eilat, Israel. Does anyone seriously think that this is a solution to the problems of Gaza? Why are Israeli representatives now pressuring Abbas to pay the salaries of bureaucrats in Gaza, and why are they willing to forego the principle of a single Palestinian armed force and one set of laws for all Palestinians? What’s happening with you, Abbas asks? Historically, that was what you always demanded of us, wasn’t it?

The Palestinian president believes in nonviolent resistance. It is his preferred path, and he advocated for it despite the opposition of the first Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. Abbas opposes the terrorism of knife attacks. Why are the people sending children out to risk their lives in knife attacks unwilling to send their own children out to do the same, he asks. This has led to a discussion of his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state. Abbas does not consider this a compromise, but rather a matter of principle. The last thing that a future Palestinian state will need is tanks and fighter jets. Abbas would rather invest in classrooms and hospitals.

It is important for Abbas to reminisce about his childhood as a Palestinian boy growing up right next to the Jewish neighborhood of Safed in the early 1940s. His father’s business partner was a Jew, and the two men were close friends. As a young boy, he participated in the family weddings of his father’s partner as well as in the celebrations of their Jewish employees. As far as Abbas is concerned, the trauma of 1948, may have forced his family to various places across the Middle East, but it never erased his fond memories of neighborly relations and partnerships. Maybe that's why he believes in peace. He thinks that there is no reason why what happened less than eight decades ago could not happen again in the future. Why can’t Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, live alongside each other as friends and in peace?

On Sept. 2, Al-Monitor asked Abbas about the possibility of a confederation, at a meeting with Israeli peace activists in his office. The Palestinian president mentioned that the Trump team had asked him whether he would accept a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. His response — which made the news — was that he would only agree if Israel was the third member of such a partnership. When Al-Monitor asked him what he meant by that, he said that he was misunderstood. His answer was that he would agree to a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, but also to a tripartite confederation, which also included Israel.

What about a confederation that would include only Israel and a future Palestinian state? “I’d have to think about that,” Abbas said. His response may have been vague, but it seems important. He could have removed the option from the table just as easily.

Abbas spoke about the way he is portrayed as someone who keeps avoiding the moment of truth and about his refusal to enter into dialogue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He called these allegations totally absurd. He said that at the meeting that took place at Netanyahu’s home nine years ago, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell, he suggested that they begin by discussing two issues: borders and security. He even brought detailed position papers concerning these two issues. According to Abbas, Netanyahu said that he was only willing to discuss security, and that he was not willing to take the Palestinian position papers.

This was followed, Abbas said, by nine separate attempts to arrange a meeting between him and Netanyahu, including an effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He responded positively to each of these proposals, while Netanyahu did not respond to any of them. The last proposal was submitted to him by President of the World Jewish Congress Ron Lauder just a few months ago. He agreed to the meeting, but Netanyahu did not.

People close to Abbas report that he is preparing a very important speech, which he is expected to deliver at the General Assembly session this year. Will he say that despite his support for the Oslo Accord, he has no choice but to withdraw from the agreement and give up the Palestinian Authority? Will he rescind the PLO’s recognition of Israel? Will he raise the possibility of resigning after more than 14 years in office, during which time he never ran in another election?

It is hard to say. His speeches are usually very circumspect. He tends not to use them to make headlines. It is very possible that once again, he will only describe the severity of the situation, along with a series of warnings, while avoiding any dramatic conclusions. Still, one thing is clear, sitting in the Muqata headquarters in Ramallah is an 83-year-old man who is in ill-health, who does not control the Gaza Strip, who lost majority support for his party in the Legislative Assembly, who rules by presidential decree and who must maneuver within his own political movement just so that he can administer the West Bank.

Despite all that, the world regards him as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, with the power to sign a peace treaty, even if it is limited to the West Bank, at least at this first stage.

Israel will have missed a huge opportunity if the next prime minister fails to take advantage of this fact. While it is true that fulfilling such an agreement would pose a very complex challenge, the very signing of an agreement between the two peoples would result in the implementation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and change the face of the region entirely.

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