Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, might hold the world record in reaching agreements with the wrong people at the wrong time. In the mid-1990s, he drafted an agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace. His counterpart was Israeli Minister Yossi Beilin.
Alas, Abbas was then still under the boot of his boss, Yasser Arafat. He had no power to deliver. As for Beilin: Half a year after the pact’s draft was ready, Beilin and the labour government of which he was a member was ousted and replaced by the first government headed by the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The Beilin-Abu-Mazen agreement remained on the shelf.
More than 10 years later, Abbas came close to reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But two reasons prevented the agreement from materializing: First, Abbas never said yes (recently, Olmert attempted to paint this negative response in a more positive light by insisting that Abbas “never said no”). And second, by the time these two reached something close to an understanding, Olmert was no longer relevant. He was a weak prime minister, on his way out. He had no chance of getting the agreement he wanted passed in the Knesset. So, again, what the parties had agreed on remained on the shelf.
At times, Abbas seems to misread the political headwinds. An understanding with Beilin was no more than an intellectual exercise. An understanding with Olmert was no more than an illusion. Last week, on his way to making his annual speech at the United Nations, Abbas had more great meaningless meetings. He met Olmert, now a convicted felon with no political future, in London. He then met with opposition leader Tzipi Livni in New York. And yes, Livni is still a player in Israel’s political arena but is unlikely to have the power to make crucial decisions for Israel under any foreseeable political scenario.
The two men he must talk to — Netanyahu, and President Donald Trump — did not get the honor. Both signaled that they are ready to sit down and talk. Trump even mentioned a possible “two-state solution.” Netanyahu was smart enough to respond positively to Trump’s unclear message, by reminding observers that a “state” can mean many things. “Everyone defines the term ‘state’ differently,” he said. “I am willing for the Palestinians to have the authority to rule themselves without the authority to harm us,” Netanyahu said on Sept. 26 after meeting with Trump in New York. So he did not rule out the option that such self-rule will be called a state.
What was Abbas’ response to these messages of a relative conciliatory tone? He said that the Palestinians now see the United States “with new eyes.” They don’t consider the U.S. to be a fair mediator for peace. “This administration has reneged on all previous U.S. commitments and undermined the two-state solution,” Abbas said. For Netanyahu’s Israel, Abbas reserved even harsher words, not the words of a leader preparing its people for negotiation and reconciliation.
Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords — a plan for peace that Israelis and Palestinians drafted on their own in the early 1990s — there is now another plan for peace, one drafted by Americans. Since the beginning of the peace process, whenever the parties seemed to lose their footing and get off track, Americans felt the need to come to the rescue. Plans were drawn during the Bill Clinton years, the George W. Bush years and the Barack Obama years. To the presidents’ credit, their intentions were always good and their plans got neither better nor worse results than the initial plan drafted by Israelis and Palestinians — that being no results. All sides seem to be much better at planning for peace than at making peace.
Much like the Palestinians, Israel wants peace on its terms. It wants peace along with Jerusalem. It wants peace without refugees. It wants peace as a Jewish state.
And now there is another plan authored by a team of Americans that Trump assembled to write the “ultimate deal.” And don’t worry: While he still thinks that Israel and Palestine peace is a “real-estate deal”; while he one day preaches for a two-state solution and the next says a one state is also a possibility; while he still believes that “we’re going to make a deal” — his team knows better than all that. The plan is nuanced, it is coherent and it is basically ready to be released. Ready for failure.
It could lead to a Palestinian state. And yet, Netanyahu seems confident that the plan is compatible with the concept of “letting them rule themselves without the ability to harm Israel.” In other words: Ask not will they have a “state” — ask what you mean by a “state.” Call it a “state,” call it a “giraffe” or a “tiara,” Israel does not much care as long as it preserves its ability to defend the border and prevent it from becoming another Palestinian enclave of terrorism such as Gaza. The Palestinians want a flag? They can have a flag. They can have a government, a border, a president, they can make decisions, develop their towns, grow their economy, maintain internal security. They can have a lot more than they have now. All this is in the plan, but for a price the Palestinians don’t seem willing to pay.
The plan is still under wraps because there are currently no credible buyers. The three-pronged maneuver by Trump’s administration was met with tough resistance. What were Trump’s tools? Using the Arab world to make the deal of the century a regional deal rather than an Israeli-Palestinian deal; using economic sanctions and enticements to make the Palestinians cooperate; shatter some of the orthodoxies that became an obstacle to any progress in all previous peace processes.
Arab leaders were asked by the Trump administration — senior adviser Jared Kushner, adviser on Israel Jason Greenblatt and their team — to get on board and guarantee support for the plan. They were informed of some of the principles, and some of them responded somewhat positively. But a commitment was not granted. Trump was hoping to pressure the Palestinians, assisted by the Egyptians and Saudis. But these hopes met the reality of a Middle East where commitments are rare, and their fulfilment even rarer.
The Palestinians were hit in the pocketbook by the administration and then told that they can get a lot more than they lost if only they’d accept certain terms and go back to the negotiating table.
And of course, the boldest and most visible acts were those aiming to kill a few unrealistic dreams once and for all: Jerusalem was recognized as Israel’s capital, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was cut off from funds whose ultimate objective is to perpetuate and exacerbate the problem of Palestinian refugees.
Abbas responded to all three moves with one powerful sentence: “Jerusalem is not for sale and the Palestinian people’s rights are not up for bargaining.” “Jerusalem” is the battle cry that can deter Arab leaders from jumping on the Trump bandwagon. “For sale” is to clarify that the Palestinians will not let economic hardships or economic incentives divert them from their ultimate goal. “Rights” is to signal that Trump was wrong to boast that Jerusalem and the refugees are now off the table. It might be off Trump’s table, and off Netanyahu’s — but that’s exactly why Abbas sees no point in negotiating with these leaders. That’s exactly why he called for “the convening of an international peace conference based on the relevant U.N. resolutions and the internationally endorsed terms of reference and parameters.” He called for the conference, to hint that, for him, the Trump plan is off the table.
All sides seem to be much better at planning for peace than at making peace.
Not that Israel is in any rush to sign an accord with the Palestinians. It is not. Much like the Palestinians, Israel wants peace on its terms. It wants peace along with Jerusalem. It wants peace without refugees. It wants peace as a Jewish state. It wants peace that the other side is not willing to grant.
Yes, Netanyahu knows that one day, somehow, the Palestinian issue will need a remedy. But he does not see this problem as urgent. Not when the neighborhood is preoccupied with Iranian aggressiveness, Russian interventionism, Syrian bloodshed, Islamic radicalism.
Netanyahu is quite confident about the Trump plan. But he is not overly confident because of two reasons: the erratic nature of the president, and the dynamics of negotiation, if these ever materialize. Trump dislikes failure, and by declaring a deal between Israel and Palestine to be his goal — a goal he still says is likely to be achieved — he put himself in the hands of Abbas and Netanyahu. They can make him fail. They can make him seem like a loser.
The prime minister is aware of the danger that Trump, because of this commitment that he had made, might fall in love with the idea of peacemaking, and that such emotion proved problematic in past rounds of negotiations (former Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iran deal is recent example). The prime minister also knows that negotiation is something that could lead to many unexpected results: What if his coalition crumbles? What if his only choice is reliance on opposition parties who want him to be more accommodating toward the Palestinians? What if the public suddenly begins to pressure him to give more? What if Israel is diplomatically outmaneuvered?
Of course, there is no danger of any of this happening as long as Abbas prefers to make deals with imaginary leaders of imaginary states, rather than real leaders of real states. If Abbas’ game is a waiting game — forget about Trump and wait for a more sympathetic U.S. president in 2020; forget about Netanyahu and wait for his legal troubles to take him down — the Israeli prime minister is also in no rush. As his U.N. speech on Sept. 27 showed, the Palestinians are relatively low on his agenda. They are a nuisance, not an existential threat. They are a diversion, not the real Middle East game of power. In fact, a main worry for Israel is the risk that the U.S. will get diverted from these important topics onto playing the game of a futile peace process.
Netanyahu’s and Abbas’ speeches on Sept. 27 at the U.N. were merely a preseason practice. As is always true in this arena, the next couple of months could be dramatic. Abbas is slated to speak within a few weeks to the leaders of the PLO — his home crowd. This will be his more important speech, where he will present his strategy for the future. If he has a plan featuring truly bold moves, this will when he announces it.
What can he do? He can go as far as dismantling the Palestinian Authority (PA). That is, cutting off his own nose to punish Israel. In such a case, the burden of having to take care of the Palestinian population in the West Bank will fall on Israel’s shoulders. But Israel’s main worry is not such a move. It’s a much likelier move of cutting all Palestinian Authority funds to Gaza.
Most observers of the Abbas U.N. speech — not many Americans were watching, as most viewers were riveted by the Christine Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh hearing on Capitol Hill — focused on his denunciation of Trump, his denigration of Israel’s nation-state law (a law that Netanyahu brilliantly defended), his insistence on the need to reverse the U.S. policy on Jerusalem. The Palestinians themselves focused no less attention on Abbas’ impatient message to the leaders of Hamas.
“We made a deal,” Abbas said at the U.N. “The Palestinian government assumes its responsibilities in Gaza as it has in the West Bank. Then we build our state on the basis of one law, one authority, one system and one legitimate weapon. We do not accept a state of militias.”
The deal — unfortunately — has one unresolved problem. Hamas, in the words of Abbas, “did not agree to implement it.” In other words: Hamas would not let Abbas control Gaza. In fact, as part of the ongoing strife between these two Palestinian factions, Hamas parliamentarians convened in Gaza two weeks ago and declared that Abbas’ presidency is unlawful.
Gaza is a bomb to which Abbas holds one safety latch. Almost every day, thousands of Gazans engage in violent demonstrations near the Erez crossing to Israel. The economic situation has again reached a low, stoking rage among the residents of the strip — rage against Israel, against Hamas, against the PA. Abbas can turn this rage into a weapon by deciding to cut $96 million that the PA sends to Gaza each month. He can turn this rage into a weapon that is most likely to fire the opening shot in another Israel-Gaza war.
Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords — the anniversary was just two weeks ago — it is not easy to remember that Gaza is where it all started. I was there the day Arafat crossed the border to take over the territory — and then when he moved to Jericho, his second stop.
In Gaza, the history of the peace process easily can be condensed. Step one: euphoria and the beginning of a Palestinian rule. Step two: violence and terror. Step three: an Israeli pullout. Step four: Hamas take over. Step five: continuous eruptions of violence. All this, in twenty-five years. All this, with only a fraction of time when the situation looked hopeful.
The Palestinians got their first chance at making Gaza a better place and ruined it in an Intifada. They then got a second chance, when Israel left, and turned to internal violence. Then Hamas got a chance. It had the territory all to itself, and decided to use it as a launching pad for war against Israel. And now Abbas wants it back.
The likely result: another war. We seem to always be ready for that.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.