The tenth anniversary of the second Palestinian intifada will fall just two days after Israel’s ten-month moratorium on settlement construction expires in September. Will the anniversary pass without incident, or will the Palestinians use the occasion for mass protests and violence?
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s announcement that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come to Washington on September 1 to relaunch direct talks on September 2 offers a ray of hope that new clashes will be forestalled. However, any optimism is mitigated by the tortuous path to gain Palestinian acquiescence.
Before last week's announcement, President Obama, European Union Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton, and other world leaders had pleaded with Abbas for weeks to resume direct talks with Israel. On a daily basis there were reports that he was about to agree, but no confirmation from Ramallah. It was a replay of the Palestinian leader’s behavior earlier this year, when he delayed as long as he could before giving the go ahead to the four months of indirect, or proximity talks, mediated by George Mitchell.
It’s extraordinary that one person, who heads an entity that is not yet a state, can wield so much authority. Yet, that has long been the sorry tale of Palestinian leaders, who, despite worldwide support for a two-state solution, continue to project profound reluctance to turn the Palestinian Authority into a Palestinian state as part of a permanent peace agreement with Israel.
Abbas’s incessant indecision could be by design, but his stance may well reflect lingering insecurity with the presidential role he was thrusted into after Arafat’s death six years ago.
Abbas revealed his anxiety again when he stated recently that he never experienced so much pressure in his life. Perhaps that’s true. It can be lonely at the top. But the source of his stress is probably the art of indecision Abbas himself has perfected.
Recall that last November Abbas declared his readiness to quit as PA president. He articulated the threat several times, prompting the White House, European and Arab leaders to beg him to stay. However, Abbas was not going to leave his Ramallah office. If he were to voluntarily vacate the presidency, the next in line is the Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Abdul Aziz Duaik, a member of Hamas. That might explain why Abbas cancelled Palestinian elections last January and secured PLO support for his remaining in office indefinitely.
Having made that choice, Abbas must assert leadership and fully engage the direct talks, historically the proven path to successful Arab-Israeli peace.
Yet, whether Abbas can be a willing participant remains to be seen. Netanyahu immediately responded affirmatively to Clinton’s invitation. Abbas took many hours before reportedly accepting. And, the next day Saeb Erekat, a longtime Palestinian negotiator and Abbas confidante, warned that the direct talks would be suspended if Israel does not extend its settlement construction freeze. Abbas confirmed that defiant stance in letters sent Sunday to each Quartet member – the U.S., EU, Russia and U.N.
Palestinian inertia has dire consequences. Israel understandably had been concerned that Abbas may have been deliberately delaying a decision on direct talks until after September 26, believing that the international community would then press Israel to accept his stated preconditions, including an end to construction in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and an agreement on final borders -- all in advance of direct talks.
Yet, in her August 20 announcement of resuming direct talks, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed a longstanding principle of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. “These talks should take place without preconditions,” she declared.
Still, there is reason for worry. A decade ago a senior Palestinian official admitted that the second intifada was planned after Yasser Arafat retuned from Camp David, apparently emboldened that he had rebuffed both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton by not responding to the generous Israeli proposal to end the conflict.
Sharon’s pre-Rosh Hashanah walk at a site holy to Jews as well as Muslims was just the incident the PA had been hoping for to spark the mayhem that led to assaults on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, the destruction of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, vandalism at Rachel’s Tomb, and deadly suicide bombings in Israeli cities.
The second intifada, which lasted five years, eviscerated whatever trust might have existed after the 1993 Oslo Accords, a tragic setback for the peace process.
Now, with active prodding by President Obama, including individual White House meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu in July, the Palestinian leader found that he could no longer remain unresponsive to the West’s entreaties to accept Israel’s continual overtures to return to direct talks, lest the Palestinians be perceived, correctly, as the obstacle to peace.
Abbas, however, may be able to salvage his strategy. The one-year timeline the U.S. set to conclude direct talks creates an aura of expectation, but also conveys to Abbas that he has more time to be indecisive, with all the perils that entails.
Kenneth Bandler is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.
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