Abbas, Middle East peace and lessons from the Oasis Casino

Mahmoud Abbas, the seventy-nine year old leader of the West Bank Palestinian Authority is known as a cautious man. But with peace negotiations at a seeming deadlock, he is talking like a guy who is thinking about betting the farm at the Oasis Casino.

I hope he resists the impulse. It won’t work.

It has been more than twenty years since Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, stood on the lawn of the White House watching his boss, Yasser Arafat, sign the Oslo Accords with Israel.

The deal promised a gradual, final peace, but it was a mirage. It left the major issues of the conflict—sovereignty, borders, interim arrangements, settlements, the status of Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlers and the future of Jerusalem—papered over in legal language and leave-it-for-later ambiguities.

The ink wasn’t even dry before both sides began haggling over what it all meant and they still haven’t decided.

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Back then, optimists believed that mutual economic progress would grease the skids for a new day of peace.

In that spirit, in 1998, the Oasis Casino, was opened in the West Bank town of Jericho. The ninety million dollar casino was the biggest joint venture in the history of Palestine. All the right people invested. Yasser Arafat himself was a silent partner.

The Oasis’s business plan was simple and profitable. It ran buses from Israeli cities to the casino, where gamblers left a million dollars a day on the gaming tables.

So there was cash flow, but not peace.

In 2000, Bill Clinton brought Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David to end the haggling and work out a final deal. With Barak’s consent, Clinton offered the Palestinians a compromise that included independent state in most of the West Bank and Gaza. But Arafat played it all or nothing, and walked away and, within a few months, gambled on a campaign of terror instead.

It was an epic mistake. The Second Intifada, as the terror war was called, initially traumatized Israel. Barak lost his job to Ariel Sharon, who responded to the violence with overwhelming force.

When it was over, the West Bank was surrounded by a very effective security fence, thousands of Palestinian terrorists were dead or in prison and Arafat himself was penned up in his office compound, where he died a captive. The prestige and credibility of the Israeli left, and the peace process itself, was collateral damage.

Arafat was succeeded by the avuncular Abu Mazen. Even skeptical Israelis thought he might make the kind of compromises necessary for a real peace.

In 2007, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Annapolis, where he was offered more or less the Clinton proposal with a sweetener; a part of East Jerusalem. Abu Mazen might have wanted to say yes, but he didn’t. He was constrained by extremist Palestinian politics, and by Israel’s unwillingness to trust Palestinian intentions.

There things stood, more or less, until the current American diplomatic initiative last year. Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped to get results by the end of April. Time’s up in a few days. Even if there is an extension, the sides are too far apart for a serious agreement anytime soon.

This isn’t necessarily Abu Mazen’s fault, but it is his situation. His best option is to stand pat and let his successors work out a realistic deal for a Palestinian state. Instead, he seems to think he can bluff his way into a huge jackpot.

His ploy is simple: I get what I want or I shut down the Palestinian Authority, leaving the Israelis to deal with the repercussions—chaos, international censure and another intifada—all by themselves. Not only that, I’ll join forces with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and let Israel fight a united and militant Palestinian enemy on two fronts.

This is a bluff Israel will call. Closing down the Palestinian Authority would reverse twenty years of slow progress toward independence. Stirring up a new intifada can only elicit a very decisive Israeli military response. Neither of those amounts to a good outcome for Abu Mazen.

Before he starts gambling with the lives and future of the Palestinians, he needs to get a grip and take a drive down to the Oasis Casino. It still stands near Jericho, but it is no longer a shining peace palace in the desert. In the last intifada, Israel blew the doors off and shut the place down. It has been empty ever since.