Editor’s notes: Mahmoud Abbas, five years of dithering

By David Horovitz October 16, 2009

Helpless before Hamas, hopeless before Israeli governments that sought an accord, Mahmoud Abbas is about to be consigned to irrelevance.

Landmark public events over the course of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship are ripe for psychological analysis. Yitzhak Rabin’s hesitant handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, for instance, illustrated his reservations about the partnership more eloquently than anything he ever said before or afterwards. The strained expressions as President Obama presided over a Netanyahu-Mahmoud Abbas handshake at the United Nations General Assembly just last month preempted the subsequent news that their talks had made no headway.

And Arafat’s reluctance to enter ahead of Barak at Camp David, only partly explained on Lie To Me as reflecting his desire for the ‘honor’ of being the last one to go in, also vouchsafed the deeper truth that would soon become all too clear: The Palestinian leader wasn’t merely unhappy to be forced into the room first, he didn’t want to be there at all. He didn’t want to negotiate a peace accord, to lead his people to statehood alongside Israel, to make the transition from terrorist leader. And so, after Camp David came the terror war of the second intifada, and Arafat went to his grave having proved incapable of setting down the gun in favor of the olive branch.

DESPITE THE Holocaust-denying doctorate and the long years spent at Arafat’s side, Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to be different.

The body-language of his meetings with Israeli leaders, most notably prime minister Ehud Olmert, was relaxed and open. The handshakes were warm. Shoulders were patted. Smiles were broad. And when the cameras were gone, we were told, the conversations were constructive and purposeful. Ariel Sharon told this newspaper more than once that he believed Abbas truly sought coexistence with Israel. Olmert was so convinced of Abbas’s peace-partner credentials as to have won over George W. Bush; hence the ill-fated Annapolis process that was supposed to have cemented the partnership.

But whether or not Abbas genuinely had the desire, it must now be definitively accepted that he has lacked the courage. He lacked the courage to tell his people the truth about Israel: that our historical legitimacy, precisely here between the river and the sea, is indisputable; that our presence is not an injustice wrought upon the Palestinians by a Holocaust-guilty Europe, but rather the belated correction of a historical injustice done to the exiled Jews; that both peoples need to find enlightened compromise and seek to live peacefully side by side.

Abbas lacked the courage to seize the opportunity of a deal with the desperate Olmert – an Israeli prime minister who, late in his political life, had become persuaded that a two-state solution was an urgent imperative for Israel, and who belied the claim that no Israeli prime minister would give more to the Palestinians than Barak offered in vain to Arafat.

The gaps were too wide, Abbas complained, even as he cited a purported Olmert offer of 97 percent of the West Bank and recognition in principle (denied by Olmert) of a Palestinian ‘right of return.’ He preferred, as he told The Washington Post this past May, to bide his time. ‘I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,’ he said, in an article headlined ‘Abbas’s Waiting Game.’ ‘Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality.’

Well, the waiting is almost over now for Mahmoud Abbas, but there’s no ‘good reality’ in store for him. Abbas’s tenure as Arafat’s successor has proved an unmitigated disaster. He lost the Palestinian parliamentary elections to Hamas in 2006. He lost Gaza physically to Hamas in the coup of 2007. He lost much of Israel in spurning Olmert, and even more of Israel, right now, in leading the calls for the Goldstone-facilitated international prosecution of Israel over Operation Cast Lead. And with quite spectacular ineptitude, he has managed to simultaneously doom himself among the Palestinians over the self-same issue, for the ‘crime’ of initially agreeing not to champion Goldstone’s viciously skewed indictment.

The elusive, infuriating, terror-fostering Arafat exploited tactical alliances to advance the Palestinian cause – often miscalculating, as when supporting Saddam Hussein, but always recovering, as when ostensibly cozying up to the US and Israel – without ever changing a strategy of maximalist goals. Abbas has been more urbane and much less offensive, but ultimately also impossible.

Israel, it should be said, has not always helped. The failure of successive governments to deal with illegal outposts in the territories and, most recently, Binyamin Netanyahu’s build-then-halt stance on settlements, did nothing for Abbas’s credibility. The manner of our departure from Gaza was a vindication of Hamas terrorism, not of moderation.

But the very fact that Israel did dismantle the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza, with dreadful consequences for Israelis living across the border and for Gaza’s own future, nevertheless underlined Israel’s readiness to withdraw from territory despite the risks. The very fact that Likud leader Netanyahu has publicly espoused the two-state vision, and taken concrete steps to enable an improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, underlined that a partnership was there for the making. But Abbas was not forthcoming.

His has been a dithering Palestinian presidency. He dithered in confronting Fatah corruption while Hamas rose. He dithered while the Annapolis window closed. He dithers now over ‘unity’ with the Hamas leaders he loathes and knows want him dead – preparing to sign up for a partnership with the Islamists, which would sacrifice his ally-rival Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, even as he denounces the ‘emirate of darkness’ they are building in Gaza. He dithered and backtracked and tied himself up in knots over Goldstone – over a discredited legal assault on an Israel that had fought to safeguard its own people from an enemy whose ruthlessness he understands all too well.

And now his time is almost up, and only the precise date and circumstance of his consignment to irrelevance are uncertain. You cannot play a waiting game in this region. Because while you are waiting, others are scheming.

AMONG ISRAELI government policy-shapers today, it is hard – indeed, all but impossible – to find people who believe there is any mileage whatsoever left in a partnership with Abbas. And that marks a staggering fall from the situation of little more than a year ago, when a serving US president was insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was about to be resolved, and showering compliments on Abbas as peacemaker and hero of his people.

Here, now, there are some on the fringes who believe Israel must bite the bullet (to use a particularly apt phrase) and talk directly to Hamas. The Islamists, they argue, constitute the only resolute, credible Palestinian leadership, and it is worth examining whether viable long-term accommodations can be reached with them.

But those around Netanyahu disagree. They insist that so long as Hamas avowedly seeks Israel’s demise, it must not be legitimized. And they believe, correctly, that Hamas, guided by perceived religious imperative, will never condone Jewish sovereignty. So, they argue, Israel has no choice but to wait, again, for a truly moderate and courageous Palestinian leader to emerge. Not Hamas, that is. But not Abbas either.

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Abbas’s ineffectuality over those five years – helpless before Hamas, and hopeless before Israeli governments that were determined to achieve a viable accommodation – constitutes a tragedy for his people.

But it is also a tragedy for our country, governed, unprecedentedly, by a Likud prime minister who has internalized our need to separate from the Palestinians and to work with them toward an independence that does not physically or demographically threaten Israel. However stable his coalition, Netanyahu knows better than to take comfort in the status quo.

THERE IS a photograph of Abbas at Arafat’s graveside, taken at a second anniversary memorial ceremony on November 11, 2006, and distributed by the PA’s press office. It shows the Palestinian leader standing not quite erect, with his feet apart, shoulders slightly slumped, hands loosely at his sides and mouth turned down a little, wearing an expression somewhere between blank and unhappy as he gazes at his predecessor’s burial place.

I don’t know what Dr. Lightman would make of it, but to this eye it smacks of nothing so much as ambivalence. Crippling, paralyzing, hopeless ambivalence.

© The Jerusalem Post