The Mahmoud Abbas exchange, part 1: A man of peace turned autocrat
Amir Tibon is an Israeli journalist who covers Washington, D.C. for Haaretz newspaper. Prior to Haaretz, Tibon was the diplomatic correspondent for Walla News, a leading Israeli news website. His writing on Israel, the peace process and the Middle East has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Politico Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, The American Interest, and The Jerusalem Report.
Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Palestinian politics. Rumley has published in leading media outlets, including Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, and contributed commentary to The New York Times, Reuters, and Newsweek. Prior to joining FDD, Rumley was a visiting fellow at Mitvim, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. While in Jerusalem, Grant also founded and edited The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. Previously, Grant served as a consultant in Washington on issues related to counter-terrorism, the Middle East, and war-gaming strategies.
The following exchange will focus on Tibon and Rumley’s new book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus Books, 2017).
Dear Amir and Grant,
In the first chapter of your book, you use these frustratingly sad words to describe the hero of your book, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:
Mahmoud Abbas started his presidency as a man of peace and institutions. More than a decade into his four-year term, he will end it as just another regional autocrat…
Taken together, the arc of Mahmoud Abbas’s career bends toward that of a missed opportunity. If Israeli officials were to describe their ideal negotiating partner, they would describe someone almost identical to Abbas, with his aversion to terror and stated willingness to compromise. But the tragedy of Abbas, and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, is in what he doesn’t bring to the table. He is not a charismatic leader and thus could not convince his people to modify their version of the national narrative. Peace requires leaders who have both the courage to sign an agreement and the ability to implement it. Abbas appeared at times in his life to have the former. He was never close to having the latter.
Written “more than a decade into his four-year term,” what kind of picture does your narrative paint of Abbas? Is this the tale of a well-meaning tragic hero who couldn’t implement his noble vision, or of a tyrant who’s hold on power has been hampering progress in the region?
There are two competing narratives in explaining how Mahmoud Abbas rose to power within the Palestinian national movement. One narrative is that Abbas understood better than others in the movement that almost all conflicts eventually end in negotiations, and so positioned himself as the in-house “expert on Israel” and negotiator, realizing that when the time comes, these skills will make him the best candidate to lead the movement. The other narrative is that Abbas genuinely wanted an agreement with Israel and believed that getting one was in the best interest of the Palestinian people.
Our conclusion in the book is that both are true to some extent, but the second narrative is based on stronger evidence. Abbas has advocated negotiations with Israel since the 1970s — a position he consistently held even when other members of the PLO who shared his opinions, like Issam Sartawi, were being assassinated by rivals for seeking compromise. The Palestinians are in the Oslo process largely because of Abbas’ advocacy, and he consistently stuck to non-violence in the roughest periods of the conflict, such as the Second Intifada, when he chastised the terror elements of his own party for their brutality. As president, he has upheld security coordination with Israel through three wars in Gaza and countless clashes in the West Bank.
The tragic aspect of his story is that despite – or maybe even because of – his consistent support for negotiations, his political standing was never large enough to implement a deal. In 1995, after an agreement that Abbas and Yossi Beilin had negotiated behind the scenes for two years was leaked to the press, Abbas was slammed at home for conceding on core issues. The pressure deeply affected him, and he reneged on his own agreement and denied involvement.
Once he became president, this pressure only increased. In 2008, Abbas was presented a far-reaching offer by Ehud Olmert after more than 30 meetings between the two leaders, yet he left it on the table without issuing a response. To his defense, it should be noted that Olmert’s offer came when his own political standing in Israel was in shambles, and senior officials both in the US and in Israel advised Abbas to ignore it and wait for the next Israeli Prime Minister. But by not responding to Olmert, Abbas made it much easier for Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been ruling Israel since 2009, to reject any continuity with regards to Olmert’s offer, and thus to force Abbas to re-negotiate any future deal “from scratch.”
Abbas has little trust in Netanyahu, but in March 2014 he missed a rare opportunity to put pressure on his Israeli counterpart. It was then that Barack Obama presented Abbas with a new peace proposal, one that included the partition of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Had Abbas accepted that plan, even with reservations, Netanyahu would have been put in a tough spot, having to choose between saying no to a peace offer from a sitting American president with two and a half more years in office, or going along with a plan that would have likely forced him to change his coalition, and perhaps even leave his own party.
Instead of accepting the offer, however, Abbas walked away from it without an answer. Martin Indyk, who was in charge of the American negotiations team, explained in a recent interview that “while we made a massive effort to meet the basic needs of both sides in formulas that the two sides could accept, the bottom line was when we put them to Abbas, he was not prepared to accept them. He was not prepared to answer.”
What explains this behavior? Put simply, Abbas is currently too vulnerable at home to make the type of broad concessions a final-status agreement would require. He has no democratic mandate — he’s in the 13th year of a 4-year presidential term and he lost his parliamentary majority in 2006 to Hamas — and he doesn’t even control the proto-state he claims in negotiations. Losing Gaza in 2007 to Hamas in a civil war was the death knell of the modern peace process: Abbas can’t sign an agreement because he can’t implement one, and any gap between signing a hypothetical agreement and its implementation only leaves Abbas exposed to his rivals’ criticisms, and potentially worse.
This weakness, coupled with his inability to deliver on statehood for his people, has caused Abbas to turn more and more autocratic at home. He’s silenced his rivals, consolidated his grip on power in both his party and the Palestinian Authority, and overseen the diminishing role of media and civil society. The tragedy of Abbas the leader is that the man who criticized Arafat for his iron-clad grip on power has largely replicated his predecessor’s ruthless governing style. Perhaps he wouldn’t have turned into the authoritarian he is today if he had actually produced a sovereign state for his people through negotiations, his preferred route. But in the absence of that, all he can do in order to remain in power is silence the opposition – and consolidate his control over the PA’s institutions.
The two Arab leaders who have actually signed peace agreements with Israel – King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt – weren’t great believers in democratic institutions, to say the least. But fairly or not, history will most likely remember them by their diplomatic achievements rather than their heavy-handed governing styles at home. Sadly, as of today, the same cannot be said about Mahmoud Abbas.