More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Abu Mazen Throws in the Towel
ixteen years after signing the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have concluded that there isn't any point in continuing the peace process with Israel. That is the only way to understand the declaration by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that he won't run in the next elections for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA). I shall argue that he should have pulled out years ago, but better late than never. The Israeli side refuses to believe him, seeing the announcement as a public relations stunt. Just two months ago his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, announced his plan "for establishing a Palestinian state within two years," and here comes the boss and shuffles the cards. The Palestinians went astray, it seems, in their attempt to rescue something from the peace process, given a right-wing government that has arisen in Israel and contradictory signals from Washington.
Abu Mazen's resignation would be a big blast of no confidence where the peace process is concerned, but more than that, it expresses major disappointment with Barack Obama. Washington is largely responsible for the severe erosion in Abu Mazen's position with the Palestinian public. It all began with Obama's very promising speech in Cairo, where he committed himself to act for a Palestinian state with territorial continuity. On the heels of that speech he made a clear demand that Netanyahu stop construction in the settlements. Since then everything has been downhill, to the point where the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised Netanyahu for his "unprecedented concessions regarding the settlements."
Clinton's statement was the last straw. It came amid a series of humiliations suffered by Abu Mazen, who had expected the Americans to stand by their call for a freeze. Because of the initial US position, Abu Mazen went out on a limb, conditioning the renewal of negotiations on a freeze. However, when the UN General Assembly convened in September, Obama made him sit together with Netanyahu at a three-cornered meeting. Apart from a weak handshake, it produced nothing.
The nadir occurred when, pressed by the Israelis, the Americans demanded that Abu Mazen put off discussion of the Goldstone Report before the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva. The claim was that the discussion could delay the resumption of talks between the PA and Israel. Abu Mazen yielded. The result was to stall the anti-Israel momentum that had gathered around the report. The PA president's accommodating attitude drew fire from the entire Arab world, giving a first-class propaganda weapon to Hamas. Then came Hillary with her praise for Netanyahu, demanding that Abu Mazen enter negotiations with "no preconditions."
In the light of all this, we should view Abu Mazen's threat to resign as a message to all interested parties: The game is over! Sixteen years of a sterile process must end now! I am not going to be led down the garden path by the Israelis and the Americans, I am not going to yield to their demands, and therefore I proclaim my withdrawal from the game. He confronts the sides with an ultimatum: The PA in its present form has outlived its purpose. Either it becomes an independent state or finis.
In such an event there are two possibilities. The first is that the international community will have to take over responsibility for the Territories. The second is that Israel will bring back the military administration, with all the political and economic ramifications that implies. The bizarre "co-existence" between the Occupation and the PA will have reached its term, and likewise the odd phenomenon of a peace process serving as cover for settlement expansion.
It seems that the message has been heard by the White House. This was apparent in the chilly reception that Netanyahu got during his most recent visit. Obama refused to confirm the meeting until the last minute. During their late-night private session, no doubt, Obama conveyed who's boss. Netanyahu's preening swagger each time he rejected the American entreaties, as well as the endeavors of special envoy George Mitchell, ended in something really "unprecedented": the humiliation of an Israeli chief of state, when the White House refused to photograph the meeting or stand before the press, demanding instead from Netanyahu that the content of the talk not be leaked. For his part, Netanyahu contributed nothing solid that could lead to renewal of negotiations.
Netanyahu may try to plead innocent. He entered his second term as PM at a time when the Oslo Accords were nothing but a bitter memory. Yet he too contributed to their failure. In his first term, in 1996, he did all he could to torpedo them. The strained agreements about staged withdrawals and percentages, the division of Hebron, the violence after he opened the northern end of the Western Wall tunnel, all played a part in ending the dreams of peace from the days of Yitzhak Rabin. Since then we have gone through the Barak, Sharon and Olmert regimes, which wasted time, expanded the settlements, raised the separation wall, and helped to elevate Hamas to power. It is no wonder, then, that the PA has suffered a loss of credibility. It has fallen to Netanyahu to decide whether to end this conflict or cope with the consequence of not doing so: dissolution of the PA.
To end the conflict seems out of the question. Netanyahu has hamstrung himself with his right-wing coalition. How could he possibly make the demanded concessions—dismantlement of settlements, division of Jerusalem, and an arrangement for the refugees—and still keep Avigdor Lieberman's party with him in the government, not to mention right-wing fundamentalist Shas (many of whose constituents live in those settlements)? And how, in such a case, could he possibly hold the Likud together, including right-wingers like Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon? But the problem is even more difficult. When we read the Israeli political map today, we see that there can't be a ruling coalition without the right-wing parties. Kadima too, now in the opposition, wasted the time that it had under Olmert; it wasn't prepared to give Abu Mazen the slightest commitment in writing, for fear of Shas and Lieberman. It's ironic: Shas, party of the Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews, together with Lieberman's party of the Russians, together hold the country by the throat. For years the Likud (including many in today's Kadima) inflamed the public against the Left, cultivating racist hate against Arabs, and now we reap the crop.
Abu Mazen's step also puts Hamas in a delicate situation. What will happen to the Hamas regime in Gaza and its demand to be recognized as the legal government? Hamas has been playing a two-faced game. It exploited the Oslo Accords in order to participate in the elections of 2006, which brought it to power. Simultaneously, it has done its utmost to undermine these Accords. Hamas used the Palestinian parliament as an umbrella for its legitimacy as a political party, but its military wing acted separately to destroy the agreements that the parliament is based on. If the PA comes apart, what will happen to the Gaza Strip? Will Hamas establish an alternative Authority? Or will it return to its underground days and implement a scorched earth policy?
There remains the question as to why it was necessary to undergo all the deaths, the blockade, the wall, the settlements, the roadblocks, the unemployment, a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, and now the destruction in Gaza—in order to reach a point where the PA collapses. For there was never a justification for the PA's existence: that should have been obvious in the first place. Why has it taken so long to grasp the fact that the Oslo Accords could not lead to statehood, but merely perpetuated the Occupation? The answer seems simple enough: There are those within Fatah who gain from the perks of office. There is a thin, corrupt layer that has made itself rich on the backs of the people. For this reason we should not be surprised if a last-minute formula turns up once again to rescue the "peace" process. The existence of the PA, after all, isn't only a comfortable arrangement for Israel, but also a source of easy profit to all who make a living off this hollow apparatus, including the regime that is headed by Abu Mazen.