February 22, 2020

The Mahmoud Abbas exchange, part 2: On peace agreements with Arab autocrats

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). You can find part one here.


Dear Amir and Grant,

I’d like to start this round from the last paragraph of your first answer:

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.

The fact that Israel’s two long-lasting peace agreements were signed with non-democratic autocrats is a curious point. Considering that the opposition Abbas has faced in Palestine has never consisted of peace-loving democrats, but of Islamic extremists, and that regional autocrats seem to be the lesser of two evils in today’s Middle East – has Abbas’ autocratic consolidation of power necessarily been a negative development from Israel’s perspective? Moreover, had Abbas been a powerful autocrat before 2007, would he not have been more capable of implementing the vision he started out advocating?

Can Israel ever hope for something better than a regional autocrat with a genuine interest in peace?




Dear Shmuel,

The question of democratic versus autocratic legitimacy when it comes to the peace process doesn’t have a clear-cut answer, in our opinion. On the one hand, peace agreements between democratic societies are likelier to withstand the test of time. On the other hand, autocrats with strong grips on their respective societies have historically been the only ones able to sign a treaty with Israel.

It’s important to note that the question of how democratic, or undemocratic, Palestinian politics are, isn’t a question for Israel to answer, but for the Palestinians themselves. Israel didn’t comment on the state of democracy in Egypt and Jordan when it signed peace agreements with these countries, and it would be delighted to sign a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia tomorrow morning – assuming the Saudis gave up some of their demands – despite that country’s awful civil rights record. What Israel, or at least the Israelis who want an agreement, seeks in a Palestinian partner is someone who can be trusted and has the ability to deliver.

Our reading of the last two decades of peace talks is that a Palestinian leader needs both the willingness to sign an agreement and the ability to implement it in order to reach a deal. Arafat had the latter, but couldn’t bring himself to accept the former. Abbas may have been the opposite: willing to sign in a vacuum, but unable to implement an agreement once he comes to power and loses Gaza. Arafat’s legitimacy derived not merely from being the father of the modern Palestinian national movement but also from his control over nearly every major decision. Abbas’ legitimacy came from his democratic mandate in winning the 2005 presidential election, yet those same voters dealt his legitimacy a fatal blow in 2006 when they chose Hamas over Abbas’ Fatah party. The setback reverberated in Washington, where both the Bush and Obama administrations largely abandoned any push for future Palestinian elections.

Yet Palestinians have a rich societal history of placing a premium on democratic institutions. Trade unions, labor groups, civil society, political parties – all have a long track record of valuing democratic elections. When Abbas told Palestinians at his first inaugural address in 2005 that this would be a year of Palestinian elections, he had a receptive audience. And it’s this same audience that’s seen him rule by executive decree since 2009, when his four-year presidential term expired. It’s this lack of democracy, when even local city council elections are delayed repeatedly, which plays a role in widening the gap between Abbas and his people.

This is not an argument for holding elections right now – Fatah is in disarray and could well lose again to Hamas – but it is an argument to not fear elections. Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza have lived the past decade with autocratic leaders without a meaningful say in who their representatives are. Polls indicate a majority in each area are tired of their current leaders. A new Palestinian leadership, with a democratic majority and a mandate to negotiate peace with Israel, would arguably have more legitimacy than the current autocratic rulers in the West Bank and Gaza.

However unlikely such a scenario is right now, it’s not an impossibility. Palestinian Basic Law calls for presidential elections sixty days after the president vacates the seat. When Abbas does vacate the presidency, there will be voices calling for national elections in both the West Bank and Gaza for a new president. Whether these calls are answered will be the truest test of Palestinian commitment to democracy, and whether or not a leader can campaign on making peace with Israel, and win.