Can one reasonably see President Mahmoud Abbas as a genuine partner for peace? The plain and obvious answer, regrettably, is “no”. It may be worthwhile to articulate why the answer is so obvious.
From the perspective of the government and people of Israel, whether or not Abbas is a genuine partner for peace cannot turn solely on whether or not he has positive feelings, desires, hopes, or plans regarding a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in mutual peace and security. Of course, if he does not truly entertain such positive feelings, desires, etc., then for that reason alone he could not qualify as a genuine partner. But those subjective qualifications, while they are necessary, are certainly not sufficient to make Abbas, or for that matter any other Palestinian leader, a genuine partner for peace.
In addition to subjective qualifications, a genuine partner for peace would have to meet a crucial objective test: he or she would have to be a political leader who was strong, effective and persuasive enough to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians act in a way consistent with the subjective views of the genuine partner. That is, a genuine partner for peace would be a Palestinian leader whose signature on a peace agreement with Israel would in fact usher in a true peace between two states. A piece of paper that is labeled ‘peace agreement’, but that in fact does not substantially diminish the violent attacks launched by Palestinians against Israelis, is merely a piece of paper. Subjective feelings are nice and indeed necessary for a genuine partner, but a ‘leader’ who isn’t followed by the people he purports to lead cannot be a genuine partner for peace.
How does Abbas measure up to these two criteria, one subjective and one objective? His objective feelings, I think it is fair to say, are somewhat obscure, because he is in the habit (to use a colloquial expression) of talking out of both sides of his mouth. Sometimes, particularly when he is addressing an audience that he knows includes officials of Western governments (who provide a substantial part of the funding for the Palestinian National Authority), he says things that indicate that his subjective feelings are precisely those that would be necessary in any genuine partner.
At other times, particularly when he is speaking to an Arab or entirely Muslim audience, he seems to reveal feelings that are not at all consistent with those of a genuine partner. For example, Abbas addressed an audience of Palestinians this past September and said: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every martyr will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward.” This kind of statement, which certainly could reasonably be viewed as incitement at a time when Palestinians are stabbing, shooting and running over Israelis ostensibly to ‘protect’ the Al Aqsa mosque, raises very real doubts as to his true desire for peace. So, on the subjective side, there is perhaps a question mark.
But there is no question mark when it comes to Abbas’ objective ability actually to lead Palestinians as a whole to a peaceful long-term accommodation with Israel. He lacks that ability entirely, and no serious person could conclude otherwise. First of all, Abbas is not, strictly speaking, the president of the Palestinian National Authority at all. He was elected to a four-year term in January of 2005. Elementary arithmetical calculations would confirm that his term as president expired years ago. But his lack of legal authority to act as president of the Palestinian National Authority—or, as Abbas insists on calling it, the ‘State of Palestine’—is a relatively minor matter. The major matter is that Abbas is in fact a ‘leader’ who does not lead and is not followed by the most violent of the Palestinians—precisely those Palestinians who would have to lay down their arms if a true peace is to be achieved.
The ‘State of Palestine’ that Abbas purportedly seeks to lead into the international community would consist of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. My research indicates that Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since 2006. It is easy to understand why this is so: Abbas, like most of us, has no desire to be assassinated. Notwithstanding Abbas’ title of ‘president’, Gaza is ruled by Hamas. There is no question that the leaders of Hamas, who believe apparently in all sincerity that they have a religious obligation to destroy the State of Israel and re-establish Islamic control over all the territory of Israel, would eagerly kill Mahmoud Abbas if they had the chance to do so. Their eagerness stems in part from their suspicion that Abbas might be sincere in wanting to be a genuine partner for peace. In any event, a piece of paper entitled ‘Peace agreement between Israel and Palestine’ and bearing Abbas’ signature at the bottom is not likely to impress Hamas or to cause it to alter its beliefs or tactics.
Hamas is, of course, only one of a number of Palestinian terrorist organizations that are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. These organizations have members and cells throughout the territories the Palestinians claim for their state. There is no substantial reason to believe that any of the terrorists would follow the ‘leader’ Abbas, if he were to sign a peace agreement with Israel. There is, therefore, no reason to believe that Abbas could actually deliver a Palestinian polity overwhelmingly dedicated to living in peace with Israel. A reasonable person could conclude that it is very likely that a ‘peace agreement’ signed by Abbas would be no more than a piece of paper, bringing no real diminution in the violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis. So, Abbas cannot be considered a genuine partner for peace.
One last note: it is sometimes said by Palestinians and their supporters that it is the Palestinians who find themselves without a genuine partner for peace, because Israelis, and particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu, are not truly interested in establishing peace with the Palestinians. If we were to apply the same two criteria to Netanyahu that we just applied to Abbas, I think the results would be as follows. First, Netanyahu, like Abbas, has made some statements, particularly in the course of the most recent election for the Knesset, that might cast doubt on his subjective desires to reach a deal. And, like Abbas, he has also made other statements that seem to be genuinely in favor of a peace deal. So, as with Abbas, we might assign a question mark to Netanyahu’s subjective desire for peace.
But, with regard to the ability of Netanyahu, or any other Israeli prime minister, actually to enforce a peace deal reached with the Palestinians, there can be no serious question: the Israeli government could enforce any such deal. Unlike the Palestinian National Authority, the government of Israel exercises real, effective control over the territory of the State of Israel and its people. For those who are keeping score, that means that the current Israeli leadership certainly satisfies one and perhaps both of the criteria, while the Palestinian leadership perhaps satisfies one and definitely fails the other of the two criteria. The Palestinian leaders are the ones who have the most work to do if they are to become genuine partners for peace.