PA System Failure

In light of recent actions in the Middle East, it might be fair to ask if the real Mahmoud Abbas will please identify himself.

Reflecting on yet another “collapse” of the Israel-Palestinian peace talks, a commentator on the PBS program “Washington Week” quoted a colleague as saying, “Middle East peace plans are where good intentions go to die.” That quote seems  more apt than ever in view of the implosion of the recent peace talks, which started with confidence and ended with a loud thud.

Things seemed to be moving in a positive direction for several months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the release of hardcore Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons and jails as a confidence-building measure. Palestinian Authority President Abbas told a visiting delegation in Ramallah of Israeli students that he would not insist on a full “right to return” for Palestinians as part of any final peace agreement.

Progress seemed possible, and then…well, the whole thing went to pieces.

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The process quickly unraveled: Netanyahu (and a majority of the Israeli public) balked at releasing the last batch of prisoners, complaining that the Palestinians had not matched his previous releases with any meaningful concessions to Israel. In response, Abbas, in an explicit violation of process, suddenly signed treaties and conventions with 15 international organizations, seeking to enhance Palestine’s claim as an “independent state” prior to a final status agreement.

But wait, there’s more. Abbas then threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority altogether and hand over to Israel the responsibility for the security of the West Bank and providing basic services to its 2.5 million residents. This ill-advised and destructive move was quickly trumped by Abbas’ very public pronouncement to seek an agreement with the terrorist organization Hamas. Hamas, which runs the Gaza territory, refuses to recognize Israel and its leaders have actively and consistently been committed to Israel’s destruction.

And just when you thought you could predict the next step — not so fast. Abbas, who as a younger man had accused Zionists of collaborating with Nazis and challenged the numbers lost in the Holocaust, changed his stance completely. He described what happened to Jews in the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime” of modern history. He also accepted that 6 million Jews were killed and expressed sympathy for the victims’ families. Moreover, in contrast to the common political practice of offering differing statements in English and Arabic, Abbas’ communique was offered in both languages.

The statement, secured  after a series of meetings  between Abbas and Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the respected New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, might have been historic, but for its timing. For even if Abbas’ change of heart is legitimate, it feels tainted. Perception is reality, and when a statement like the one he made about the Holocaust is made at about the same time a partnership with avowed Israel-denier Hamas is announced, the presumption of fair play becomes undone.

Abbas has remained an elusive character in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Wavering and ineffectual as a presence at the diplomatic table, his PA has been subject to withering attacks for cronyism and impropriety in the management of the West Bank. He’s been the man in peace talks because he’s been the only one with whom to have peace talks.

That’s not saying much. But incompetence, lack of vision and petty thievery are nothing in comparison to declaring an allegiance to a partner like Hamas, which has killed citizens indiscriminately, launched thousands of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel and eschewed constructive negotiation and economic development for its own people in favor of cowardly and venomous conduct.

Abbas made it clear that Hamas has agreed not to interfere with the official Palestinian positions of recognizing Israel and all previous and future Palestinian-Israeli agreements. So what? Hamas has never, ever given reason for trust, and just because Abbas says Hamas will not interfere, we’re supposed to take them (and him) at their word? Doesn’t quite seem the stuff that peace is made of.

One needn’t agree with the tactics of the Israeli side to abhor the quicksilver Abbas. The reports that just prior to the PA-Hamas announcement, Bibi had given his staff permission to sketch boundary maps, or that he was willing to freeze settlements, are a whole lot of smoke. He had months upon months to authorize such actions and failed to do so. By letting it leak recently that he was amenable to such actions, he wanted to both have and eat his coalition cake.

Bibi’s constant political flitting, however, is nothing compared to the constant inconstancy that is Mahmoud Abbas. While we remain firmly entrenched in the two-state corner as the only constructive approach, the likelihood of such a solution with Abbas at the helm has dropped precipitously. As has Abbas’ potential place in the history of the Middle East.