Mahmoud Abbas is fed up. The day before yesterday he withdrew his candidacy for the coming presidential election in the Palestinian Authority.
I understand him.
He feels betrayed. And the traitor is Barack Obama.
A year ago, when Obama was elected, he aroused high hopes in the Muslim world, among the Palestinian people as well as in the Israeli peace camp.
At long last an American president who understood that he had to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only for the sake of the two peoples, but mainly for the US national interests. This conflict is largely responsible for the tidal waves of anti-American hatred that sweep the Muslim masses from ocean to ocean.
Everybody believed that a new era had begun. Instead of the Clash of Civilizations, the Axis of Evil and all the other idiotic but fateful slogans of the Bush era, a new approach of understanding and reconciliation, mutual respect and practical solutions.
Nobody expected Obama to exchange the unconditional pro-Israeli line for a one-sided pro-Palestinian attitude. But everybody thought that the US would henceforth adopt a more even-handed approach and push the two sides towards the Two-State Solution. And, no less important, that the continuous stream of hypocritical and sanctimonious blabbering would be displaced by a determined, vigorous, non-provocative but purposeful policy.
As high as the hopes were then, so deep is the disappointment now. Nothing of all these has come about. Worse: the Obama administration has shown by its actions and omissions that it is not really different from the administration of George W. Bush.
From the first moment it was clear that the decisive test would come in the battle of the settlements.
It may seem that this is a marginal matter. If peace is to be achieved within two years, as Obama’s people assure us, why worry about another few houses in the settlements that will be dismantled anyway? So there will be a few thousand settlers more to resettle. Big deal.
But the freezing of the settlements has an importance far beyond its practical effect. To return to the metaphor of the Palestinian lawyer: “We are negotiating the division of a pizza, and in the meantime, Israel is eating the pizza.”
The American insistence on freezing the settlements in the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem was the flag of Obama’s new policy. As in a Western movie, Obama drew a line in the sand and declared: up to here and no further! A real cowboy cannot withdraw from such a line without being seen as yellow.
That is precisely what has now happened. Obama has erased the line he himself drew in the sand. He has given up the clear demand for a total freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu and his people announced proudly — and loudly — that a compromise had been reached, not, God forbid, with the Palestinians (who are they?) but with the Americans. They have allowed Netanyahu to build here and build there, for the sake of “Normal Life”, “Natural Increase”, “Completing Unfinished Projects” and other transparent pretexts of this kind. There will not be, of course, any restrictions in Jerusalem, the Undivided Eternal Capital of Israel. In short, the settlement activity will continue in full swing.
To add insult to injury, Hillary Clinton troubled herself to come to Jerusalem in person in order to shower Netanyahu with unctuous flattery. There is no precedent to the sacrifices he is making for peace, she fawned.
That was too much even for Abbas, whose patience and self-restraint are legendary. He has drawn the consequences.
“To understand all is to forgive all,” the French say. But in this case, some things are hard to forgive.
Certainly, one can understand Obama. He is engaged in a fight for his political life on the social front, the battle for health insurance. Unemployment continues to rise. The news from Iraq is bad, Afghanistan is quickly turning into a second Vietnam. Even before the award ceremony, the Nobel Peace Prize looks like a joke.
Perhaps he feels that the time is not ripe for provoking the almighty pro-Israel lobby. He is a politician, and politics is the art of the possible. It would be possible to forgive him for this, if he admitted frankly that he is unable to realize his good intentions in this area for the time being.
But it is impossible to forgive what is actually happening. Not the scandalous American treatment of the Goldstone report. Not the loathsome behavior of Hillary in Jerusalem. Not the mendacious talk about the “restraint” of the settlement activities. The more so as all this goes on with total disregard of the Palestinians, as if they were merely extras in a musical.
Not only has Obama given up his claim to a complete change in US policy, but he is actually continuing the policy of Bush. And since Obama pretends to be the opposite of Bush, this is double treachery.
Abbas reacted with the only weapon he has at his command: the announcement that he will leave public life.
The American policy in the “Wider Middle East” can be compared to a recipe in a cookbook: “Take five eggs, mix with flour and sugar…
In real life: Take a local notable, give him the paraphernalia of government, conduct “free elections”, train his security forces, turn him into a subcontractor.
This is not an original recipe. Many colonial and occupation regimes have used it in the past. What is so special about its use by the Americans is the “democratic” props for the play. Even if a cynical world does not believe a word of it, there is the audience back home to think about.
That is how it was done in the past in Vietnam. How Hamid Karzai was chosen in Afghanistan and Nouri Maliki in Iraq. How Fouad Siniora has been kept in Lebanon. How Muhammad Dahlan was to be installed in the Gaza Strip (but was at the decisive moment forestalled by Hamas.) In most of the Arab countries, there is no need for this recipe, since the established regimes already satisfy the requirements.
Abbas was supposed to fill this role. He bears the title of President, he was elected fairly, an American general is training his security forces. True, in the following parliamentary elections his party was soundly beaten, but the Americans just ignored the results and the Israelis imprisoned the undesirable Parliamentarians. The show must go on.
But Abbas is not satisfied with being the egg in the American recipe.
I first met him 26 years ago. After the first Lebanon War, when we (Matti Peled, Ya’acov Arnon and I) went to Tunis to meet Yasser Arafat, we saw Abbas first. That was the case every time we came to Tunis after that. Peace with Israel was the “desk” of Abbas.
Conversations with him were always to the point. We did not become friends, as with Arafat. The two were of very different temperament. Arafat was an extrovert, a warm person who liked personal gestures and physical contact with the people he talked with. Abbas is a self-contained introvert who prefers to keep people at a distance.
From the political point of view, there is no real difference. Abbas is continuing the line laid down by Arafat in 1974: a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The difference is in the method. Arafat believed in his ability to influence Israeli public opinion. Abbas limits himself to dealings with rulers. Arafat believed that he had to keep in his arsenal all possible means of struggle: negotiations, diplomatic activity, armed struggle, public relations, devious maneuvers. Abbas puts everything in one basket: peace negotiations.
Abbas does not want to become a Palestinian Marshal Petain. He does not want to head a local Vichy regime. He knows that he is on a slippery slope and has decided to stop before it is too late.
I think, therefore, that his intention to leave the stage is serious. I believe his assertion that it is not just a bargaining ploy. He may change his decision, but only if he is convinced that the rules of the game have changed.
Obama was completely surprised. That has never happened before: an American client, totally dependent on Washington, suddenly rebels and poses conditions. That is exactly what Abbas has done now, when he recognized that Obama is unwilling to fulfill the most basic condition: to freeze the settlements.
From the American point of view, there is no replacement. There are certainly some capable people in the Palestinian leadership, as well as corrupt ones and collaborators. But there is no one who is capable of rallying around him all the West Bank population. The first name that comes up is always Marwan Barghouti, but he is in prison and the Israeli government has already announced that he will not be released even if elected. Also, it is not clear whether he is willing to play that role in the present conditions. Without Abbas, the entire American recipe comes apart.
Netanyahu, too, was utterly surprised. He wants phony negotiations, devoid of substance, as a camouflage for the deepening of the occupation and enlarging of the settlements. A “Peace process” as a substitute for peace. Without a recognized Palestinian leader, with whom can he “negotiate”?
In Jerusalem, there is still hope that Abbas’ announcement is merely a ploy, that it would be enough to throw him some crumbs in order to change his mind. It seems that they do not really know the man. His self-respect will not allow him to go back, unless Obama awards him a serious political achievement.
From Abbas’ point of view, the announcement of his retirement is the doomsday weapon.