Much has been made of Mahmoud Abbas’ utterances in his recent interview on Israeli TV in which he made the following three claims: 1) He personally has no right to return to live in his native town of Safed (which is located inside Israel) and accepts that the West Bank and Gaza (with East Jerusalem as the capital) are Palestine and the rest is Israel; 2) As long as he is in office, there will be no third intifada and he rejects the use of violence; 3) He is ready to return to the negotiating table if Netanyahu concedes that the two-state solution is to be based on the 1967 borders.
In an explosion of I told you so’s, various personas who have lauded Abbas as an honest-to-goodness peace partner jumped on Abbas’ statements with voracious delight. These figures are members of the blame-Netanyahu-for-the-stalled-peace-process camp (whether they actually believe what they say or proclaim so for public consumption I cannot say).
Amongst the most prominent of such figures, Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated: “The government has taken steps to strengthen Hamas and to weaken the PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, an organization which espouses non-violence and negotiations for peace. . . The interviews that Abbas gave in recent days are proof to the Israeli public that we have somebody to talk to in order to end this bloody conflict between our nations, which has lasted far too long.”
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stated: “I called him and told him it was very important that he said what he did”, and claimed “the negotiations ended before we reached a point that something could be signed” (referring to the 2008 negotiations with Abbas during Olmert’s premiership in which Olmert put what’s considered the most generous offer to date on the table and to which Abbas failed to respond).
President Shimon Peres stated regarding the interview: “His brave words prove that Abu Mazen (Abbas) is a real partner for peace.”
The reactions cited above are echoed in approval by many die-hard peace advocates both inside Israel and in the Diaspora. I bear too much respect for Shimon Peres and for his stature and role in Israeli history to in any way attack him personally. I can only give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he genuinely believes that in light of what he views as the alternative, there is no viable option other than pursuing peace (via a two-state solution) at any cost and in the face of all the reasons to be seriously circumspect of our negotiating partners.
But I do not reserve such respect for the motives of Olmert and Livni, who in my view have in no way earned their stature in Israeli politics and have a track record of acting with cynical opportunism. Olmert’s statement at a 2010 conference held at Tel Aviv University referring to the 2008 negotiations reveals his duplicity: “I found Abbas to be a fair partner, opposed to terror. What happened? That is the question of all questions, which I would answer if I could. I hope that the State of Israel will put at the top of its agenda the fact that there was a peace proposal offered by a legitimate government. . . It’s time the international community demand an answer from the Palestinians instead of arguing about a building here and a building there.” Now a few easy utterances have satisfactorily proven to Olmert that Abbas really wants or has the stomach to sign a peace deal.
Abbas’ assertion that he has no personal right to return to Safed has been considered most significant, leading various pundits to assert this amounts to the long-awaited-for repudiation of the right of return to Israel proper by millions of Palestinians categorized today as refugees. Never mind that Abbas quickly clarified to the Arab press, in Arabic, that he was only referring to himself, and that he never gave up the general Palestinian right of return. Abbas’ spokesman, Nadil Abu Rudaineh, further added that the interview was aimed at “affecting Israeli public opinion.” In essence, those wishful thinkers who assert Abbas was genuinely hinting that he is ready to give up the Palestinian right of return, choose to believe that Abbas was being honest with the Israeli audience and not with his own people.
When Abbas states that as long as he is in office there will be no third intifada, at first glance this may be taken as a will to express his genuine intentions to avoid violence and reach peace. It may very well be true that Abbas presently has no interest in violence, but his words mask a thinly veiled threat that a third intifada will erupt if Israel fails to reach an agreement with him and adhere to his conditions. It is a naked attempt, through the use of fear, to cause Israelis, Diaspora Jews and the Western World to buy into his self-depiction as a real peace partner who represents the last chance to reach an agreement. It also serves as a means of fertilizing the ground to place the blame on Israel if widespread violence eventually does breaks out — that Israel’s refusal to react to Abbas’ outstretched hand is the cause of any future violence.
Abbas’ call for Netanyahu to come to the table on the condition that he recognize the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiation is highly cynical. To begin with, this has never served as a condition for negotiation between the parties. Furthermore, even Presidents of the US made it an unofficial policy to avoid explicitly stating that negotiations be based on 1967 borders — this until President Obama broke the mold and did just that in May 2011. In spite of the fact that it is understood a two-state solution would be based roughly on the 1949 armistice line, no sitting Israeli Prime Minister has to date stated so publicly. The reason being not only that the literal 1967 line is considered “Auschwitz borders”, the making of any concessions regarding territory outside of the negotiating room naturally weakens bargaining strength.
Additionally, any declaration that can be construed as stating Israel has no intrinsic right to any land beyond the 1967 borders weakens any moral claim to retaining such land. Therefore, any issues of borders must be left for the negotiating table, not used as a condition to reach it. Abbas is demanding a condition he knows Netanyahu can never adhere to in order to paint himself as a genuine peace partner, while at the same time guaranteeing no negotiations will in fact take place.
It does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that “the interview” was just another transparent ploy by Abbas to camouflage his ongoing refusal to come to the negotiating table and to place the blame for the stalled peace process on Netanyahu. The timing of the interview is an immediate give away. Israel has now entered election season. Weakening Netanyahu lends tactical support to left of center candidates and calling on Netanyahu to sit at the table just as he is busy with electoral considerations reveals a lack of seriousness on Abbas’ part.
Additionally, the interview comes on the heals of Abbas’ declaration that he will seek UN non-Member State status for Palestine. Abbas knows full well that such action is condemned by the US administration, which calls for seeking a solution through direct negotiations and opposes unilateral motions at the UN. By posing as the party who has been willing to engage in genuine negotiation but turned down by Netanyahu, Abbas is trying to weaken the claim that such a move at the UN in any way signifies the rejection of a negotiated solution. Rather, that he has been left with no other option in the face of Israeli intransigence.
How often can Netanyahu’s call to Abbas to come to the negotiating table (without preconditions) and Abbas’ constant refusal to do so be dismissed? To me it is mind-boggling. Members of the blame-Netanyahu-for-the-stalled-peace-process camp excuse Abbas’ obstinacy by claiming that Netanyanu is not a genuine peace partner, that he has no real intention of pursuing a two-state solution. Therefore, the logic goes, Abbas is justified in refusing to enter into negotiations with Netanyahu unless he proves his genuine intentions by submitting to Abbas’ preconditions. But in light of all the evidence, why is Abbas more deserving of being given the benefit of the doubt than Netanyahu? Why shouldn’t Netanyahu’s real intentions be tested at the negotiating table? And why would imposing a condition to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to clearly relinquish the right of return be any less legitimate?
I cannot know whether in his heart of hearts Abbas would like to reach a peace deal with Israel. But whether he is driven by an unwillingness to ever recognize Israel and make real peace or by fear of his Palestinian constituency if he were to make the concessions a true peace deal requires, it is obvious he has no real intention of sitting at the table with the present Israeli administration. The reaction of Olmert and friends to Abbas’ empty and disingenuous words plays directly into Abbas’ manipulation and lends credibility not only to Netanyahu’s detractors, but to Israel bashers everywhere.