Monday, June 1, 2009

Abbas Seizes Opportunity to Throw Away Opportunity

By Barry Rubin

When Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas visited President Barack Obama in Washington, he squandered a great opportunity while, at the same time, giving Obama a tremendous opportunity to understand how the Middle East really works.

Abbas showed that he, like his predecessors, would never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here is a new U.S. president, the potentially most pro-Palestinian chief executive in history, straining at the bit to move forward a peace process, quite open to the possibility of pressuring Israel.

And Abbas gave him nothing.

"I am confident that we can move this process forward," Obama said after meeting Abbas. One would expect he’s less confident now than before the meeting.

On one point, Abbas can expect U.S. support: pressing Israel to stop any building whatsoever on Jewish settlements. But how much effort should the United States put into this when Abbas—rather than being cooperative with the president’s pet project—refuses to talk with Israel unless there is a total freeze and additional unrequited concessions?

In contrast, Abbas could have tried to portray himself (falsely) as flexible and eager for progress. After all, the president used such phrases as, “We can’t continue with the drift….We need to get this thing back on track….We don’t have a moment to lose.” But now, Abbas has played his hand so that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to talk and the PA isn’t.

As for Abbas’s pet project, unity with Hamas, Obama was not quite supportive of the PA’s strategy. It would be nice to have unity, said Obama—a mistake but leave that aside for the present—but any coalition would have to accept all previous agreements and the Quartet’s conditions. And that Hamas will never do.

Reportedly, Abbas’s plan presented to Obama said nothing about what the PA would do to promote peace, only proposing an immediate freeze on any settlement activity and a timetable for Israeli withdrawal.

In other words, Israel gives him everything and he gives nothing.

One can only wonder whether, during the meeting, it ever occurred to Obama and his advisors that Abbas was acting precisely the way Netanyahu had predicted.

Obama did mention to Abbas such Israeli requirements—and Quartet demands—as that the PA reduce anti-Israel incitement to violence.

But what could be a more indicative, almost humorously so, response than what Abbas told reporters:

"I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel."

Israel gives up all the territory and then maybe it gets something in return.

Most significantly of all, one of Abbas’s aides was quoted as saying: "The Americans are the leaders of the world….They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'"

And that’s the Palestinian strategy: America tells Israel to make all the concessions. The PA accepts them.

It might be added as an aside, that if the United States used its “weight” on the PA two years ago, that effort by the Bush administration brought no perceptible shift in PA positions and policies. The end of the second intifada—if that’s what the official meant—came about as the result of the PA’s military defeat and shifting gears tactically was clearly in its interests.

In a real slap in the face to Obama, Abbas said he wouldn’t even help presidential envoy Senator George Mitchell by giving any confidence-building measures. Nobody could have put this better than Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl:

“[Abbas] has revived a…Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while the Arabs passively watch and applaud.”

I would only suggest that no revival is involved since this fantasy has never dissipated in the first place.

A PA official has been quoted as saying that after a couple of years, U.S. pressure will force Netanyahu to resign and presumably comply with whatever the United States, or rather whatever the PA, wants. Note that this “patience” not only clashes with Obama’s impatience but also with the supposed Palestinian suffering. After all, the idea that Palestinians are so miserable under “occupation,” so eager to escape bloodshed, and so passionately yearning for a state they just cannot wait.
What Abbas’s behavior shows, however, is that the PA is more interested in making peace with a radical Islamist Hamas than with Israel; more hopeful of eventually destroying Israel than in making peace with Israel.
The meetings much have been quite a learning experience for President Obama, the first lesson in his education that making peace is not so easy and that the main obstacle to achieving it is the Palestinian leadership.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to To see his blog,

Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in the June 1, 2009 Edition 21 of Bitter Lemons. Copyright, Bitter Lemons

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