February 11, 2013
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stuck in neutral for so long, any ostensibly positive development is assumed to signal a possible opportunity to advance. Some observers contend that Israel’s recent elections provide such a turning point. The New York Times, for instance, argued in an editorial that the results set the stage for a breakthrough in moribund peace negotiations.
The White House announcement that President Barack Obama will soon visit Israel, where he will meet with the new government as well as the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and King Abdullah II in Amman, raises further anticipation of a reinvigorated peace process. Indeed, Obama might convene a “peace summit” with Netanyahu and Abbas when he visits.
The last time the three leaders met was in September 2010, in Washington, DC, when Obama and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a valiant effort to jump-start the stalled direct talks. Shortly afterwards, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walked away, snubbing both the Israeli partner he will need to achieve a sustainable peace and the American president who told the UN General Assembly that year that he looked forward to welcoming Palestine, created on the basis of direct negotiations, as a member state.
Abbas’s behavior was a repeat of his walk-away in 2008, when he spurned a permanent peace proposal from Israel more farreaching than the one the Palestinian leadership rejected at Camp David in 2000.
Abbas is thus responsible for the breakdown of negotiations and also for resuming them. He can be the game-changer by returning to direct talks without preconditions. His alternative is to pursue a diplomacy based on the misguided principle that a Palestinian state can be created without an agreement with Israel. The UN vote last November upgrading the status of the Palestine delegation does not bring Abbas any closer to achieving the elusive goal of statehood. Nor can that happen by printing letterhead and signage emblazoned with the words “State of Palestine.”
Making peace has become even more challenging since the dramatic political upheavals across the Arab world boosted Hamas’s stature.
Qatar’s emir, the first head of state to visit Hamas-ruled Gaza last October, recently cancelled an expected visit to Ramallah, leaving Abbas further marginalized in the Arab world. So far, Jordan’s King Abdullah is the only Arab leader to visit him.
In contrast, following the Qatari’s visit, other heads of state have made the journey to embrace the Hamas leadership.
On January 22, it was Malaysia’s prime minister.
Tunisia’s president, who was to come this month, postponed his Gaza visit indefinitely after Abbas made a personal appeal.
Striving to find a way to cooperate fully, Hamas and Fatah continue to talk about reconciliation. They also talk about fresh elections, both in their respective factions, and for the Palestinian legislature and PA presidency. But any accord between Hamas and Fatah remains a pipe dream.
The Palestinian leader to watch is Khaled Mashal.
Though he has vowed to step down from his Hamas leadership post, Mashal is only 56 years old and hardly contemplating retirement. Based in Doha and often on the road, Mashal is the point person for Hamas in talks with Fatah. He recently visited Amman to meet with the King, his first visit since Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999. Such interactions fuel speculation that Mashal actually is capable of reform.
But Mashal, loyal to Hamas’ founding principles and ideology, which allow no room for Israel, is by no means interested in peace. His firm opposition to Israel’s very existence, his determined endorsement of violence and rejection of any peace talks came through clearly in his passionate address in Gaza celebrating the 35th anniversary of Hamas. He has since denied any reports of his endorsing a two-state solution.
So the peace ball is in the hands of Abbas. He can remain wedded to the illusion of reconciling with archrival Hamas, but that cannot bring a deal with Israel. He can continue to ignore the fact that four successive Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, have committed to negotiating a two-state solution to the conflict.
And he can try to blithely ignore the historical reality that sustainable Arab-Israel peace agreements, like those with Egypt and Jordan, have succeeded only with US engagement.
Obama’s visit will provide a psychological boost for the Israeli people, a public affirmation of the unshakeable bond between the US and Israel that the president has repeatedly stressed. It can potentially lead to a renewed peace effort, but only if Abbas, the recognized Palestinian leader, is willing to engage it.
Without such a Palestinian leadership initiative, the peace process, tragically, will remain moribund.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.