Why Palestinian President Abbas is Bucking the White House

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The current priority of the Obama Administration’s Middle East peace policy is to prevent the Palestinian leadership seeking UN recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over all of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But evidence is mounting that the Administration will fail, because even the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has recognized the futility of waiting for U.S. policy to deliver Palestinian national goals.

The latest indication that Abbas is no longer willing to jump through diplomatic and political hoops on command from Washington comes in reports that Abbas’ Fatah movement has agreed to form an interim unity government with its arch-rival Hamas, and has fixed dates for new elections.

Reconciliation with Hamas, or at least the restoration of the principle of democratic political competition between the rival organizations, marks a repudiation of the U.S. and Israeli policy of seeking to marginalize the Islamist party that won the last Palestinian elections in January of 2006. U.S. policy that categorizes Hamas as a terrorist organization would prevent Washington from maintaining its $475 million annual aid subsidy to a Palestinian Authority government in which the movement was represented, although the Palestinian groups may seek to circumvent that provision by agreeing on a government of politically unaffiliated technocrats pending new elections. But the deeper challenge is political: Is the U.S. prepared to engage with the reality that Hamas represents a substantial portion of Palestinian society, whose consent would be vital to the prospects for success of any peace agreement?

Israel made its own response clear even before the announcement: “You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned recently. “Choose peace with Israel.” Whereas Abbas had for most of the past five years played along with the U.S.-Israeli scheme to isolate and topple Hamas while supposedly building up Fatah, in the end he may have recognized that the most Israel is willing to offer him of its own volition is less than the minimum he needs to survive politically — and that the U.S. is unable or unwilling to press the Israelis to do more.

The winds of change blowing across the Arab world have produced a growing call among Palestinians for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. The first demand of the Arab Spring in the Palestinian territories has been for unity, and as is true for the Arab rebellion everywhere, ordinary Palestinians seeking dignity and change have little regard for Washington’s preferences. The fact that the new reconciliation agreement was brokered by Egypt may also have been a product of the changes in Cairo which have swept out a leadership whose hostility towards Hamas was in step with America’s and Israel’s.

Abbas made clear the extent of his own frustrations with the Obama Administration in an in-depth interview with Newsweek. Among its more notable revelations is the Palestinian leader’s claim that the President himself, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a host of lower-level officials pulled out all the stops in the hope of pressuring the Palestinians to withdraw a February U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a halt to all Israeli settlement activity. Abbas defied Washington on that one, although he appears to have been surprised that Obama was willing to isolate the U.S. along with Israel by using its veto against a resolution that echoed his Administration’s own policy. (That, of course, may simply be a residue of the naivete with which Abbas has looked to Washington over the past decade and more.) Still, there’s little reason to expect Washington to fare any better in its efforts to persuade the Palestinians to hold back on the planned September U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines.

Despite all the dark warnings that the U.N. vote — which is almost certain to pass, given that the General Assembly operates on the basis of simple majority with no veto power — will spark a new chapter of violence and end any prospect for a negotiated peace, Abbas makes clear in the interview that he has no intention of seeking confrontation. And it’s far from obvious that going to the U.N. General Assembly for a ruling on the territorial parameters of a Palestinian state is antithetical to negotiating a two-state solution.

U.N. recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and East Jerusalem wouldn’t change the fact that Israel currently controls those territories; it simply reiterates the principle, previously articulated by the U.N., denying the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to territories acquired by force in the war of June 1967. The corollary, of course, is that any future Israeli presence on any of those territories will be deemed legitimate only on the basis of Palestinian consent. And that establishes the negotiating parameter as being not how much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem Israel is willing to give the Palestinians, but how much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem the Palestinians will agree to allow Israel to keep.

Establishing that principle as a matter of international consensus may be important to Abbas precisely because of the vast imbalance of leverage between the two sides in negotiations under U.S. auspices.

Despite the objections of the Obama Administration to a Palestinian effort to seek U.N. recognition, the U.N. General Assembly is in fact the source of Israel’s own legitimacy in international law: The international body admitted Israel as a member state in May 1949, although the resolution noted a connection between Israel’s recognition and the implementation of resolution 181 of November 1947, which called for partition of what had been British Mandate Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. U.N. recognition of Israel was based on the assumption that it would share the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean with a second state, for Palestinian Arabs. (And the partition plan — which was rejected by the Palestinians, who comprised a majority of the population at the time, and by neighboring Arab states who declared war in the hope of preventing Israel’s emergence — actually promised them twice as much territory as they would get if borders were established on the 1967 lines, as they plan to demand in September.)

So Abbas appears to be going to the U.N. with a view to strengthening his own bargaining position, knowing he’ll get a more sympathetic hearing there than in Washington, where domestic politics tilts U.S. policy towards Israel’s interests. U.N. recognition of Palestinian claims won’t change the reality on the ground, but it raises diplomatic pressure on Israel — and on the United States — to base a two-state solution on the 1967 lines. And it’s not hard to see why the Palestinian leadership, after two decades of failed negotiations under exclusive U.S. auspices,  has finally given up on doing Washington’s bidding in the expectation of it producing a different result.

Nobody should expect any early progress towards a two-state solution based on the Palestinians’ latest moves. But what their decisions reflect is the fact that they’ve recognized the Clinton-Bush-Obama “peace process”, as we have known it, as a dead horse.