Click photo to download. Caption: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26. Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard.
By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
It sometimes seems as if the see-saw debate about the true intentions of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority has been with us for an eternity. One day, we’ll be saying that Abbas is genuinely a moderate, that he really is committed to a two-state solution, that perhaps he’s the guy upon whom the cautious, unsentimental Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should risk a bet. The next day, we’ll encounter yet another inciting, spiteful Abbas soundbite and it’s back to the drawing board.
I don’t think that Abbas is the Machiavellian demon some believe him to be. Equally, the idea that the Palestinian leader is a transparently uncomplicated moderate is absurd. David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy summarized the Abbas dilemma elegantly in a interview I conducted with him for the latest issue of Fathom, a magazine covering Middle East affairs.
“Shortly after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers who were later murdered in the West Bank, at a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Abbas made quite a conciliatory speech, defending the need to cooperate with Israel against terrorism,” Pollock told me. “But then at other times Abbas does or says things that point in the opposite direction. He meets with terrorists whom he released from prison and praises them. He allows his spokesmen to continue to glorify terrorism in official media. It’s equivocal, it can be seen as hypocritical, and it’s just not particularly credible, because it’s not consistent.”
Still, for all of Abbas’s failures, you have to credit him with shrewdness on this front: he’s persuaded most of the world that there’s a deal to be made if only Netanyahu would abandon his “Greater Israel” doctrine. He therefore gets away with the kind of incendiary rhetoric that, over the last few months, has involved comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, accusations of Israeli “genocide,” and a bloodcurdling appeal to stop Jews (whom he described as a “herd of cattle”) from praying at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem “by any means.”
So, if Abbas is being indulged on the rhetorical front—even when that rhetoric contributes dramatically to Palestinian violence that has raged in Jerusalem during the last week, claiming the life of a three month-old Jewish infant—you can hardly blame him for seeking to up the ante when it comes to political strategy.
The PA is now dusting off its unilateralist playbook, which means that it seeks to impose recognition of a Palestinian state upon Israel through international pressure. It’s a method that has won only symbolic victories so far: “Palestine” became a non-member observer state at the U.N. in 2012, and more countries (134 at the last count) recognize the statehood of the Palestinians than they do Kosovo (a country liberated from Serb ethnic cleansing by a NATO coalition in 1999) or the Republic of Taiwan (which has the enormous footprint of communist China to contend with).
But as wealthier, more influential countries join the Palestinian recognition bandwagon, that could change in the coming months. One of the very first acts of Sweden’s newly elected leftist government was to recognize Palestinian statehood. A few days later, the British parliament voted to do the same. And the Irish Senate has just now passed a motion calling on the Dublin government to recognize the State of Palestine. As the motion’s sponsor, Senator Averil Power, put it, “The more countries that recognize the State of Palestine, the greater the pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation and agree to a long-term peace agreement in the region.”
What if other European states—like France, which is rumored to be considering a similar move—follow suit? In that case, there could well be direct policy implications for what the Europeans will doubtless portray as Israeli non-compliance with the will of the international community. We’ve already seen the European Union (EU) introduce labeling for Israeli products produced by Jewish communities in the West Bank. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that further measures could be introduced to limit the trading relationship between Israel and the EU, worth around $40 billion per year, as well as academic, defense and other vital forms of cooperation.
Think of it, if you like, as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions by the back door, the respectable government version of a campaign whose founders aim is to eliminate the very existence of the Jewish state. As long as such governments remain in thrall to the unshakeable belief that Abbas is the only man who can deliver peace, and that consequently anything he does that might undermine the peace process (like encouraging terrorism) can be written off as just so much understandable frustration, there is little that can be done to counter the Palestinian diplomatic offensive. And in such an environment, can we be sure that the Obama administration won’t underhandedly explore the implications of cooperating with Abbas and co in the quest for recognition? I don’t think so, which is why we will have to be eagle-eyed in watching U.S. actions at the U.N., given that the Palestinians are now considering applying for membership in 522 organizations, protocols, and treaties as the next step in their unilateralist strategy.
In the same vein, we should be clear that any attempt to force Israel to recognize a Palestinian state without having its own security needs respected is verging upon a declaration of war. The Israelis have themselves said that they do not reject the idea of a Palestinian state—many of them would happily accept one under the right conditions, since it would liberate their country from the burden of controlling the West Bank—but that it must be achieved by negotiation.
It’s increasingly clear, however, that the mood among the world’s democracies is shifting. The view that Israel must be cajoled and bullied into giving Abbas what he wants is spreading. And that could turn out to be just as dangerous as a Hamas missile campaign from the Gaza Strip.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.
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