Mahmoud Abbas in Doha - AFP - October 30, 2011
Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting of the committee of Arab foreign ministers in Doha to discuss Palestinian UN bid for statehood, October 30, 2011. Photo by AFP
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Mahmoud Abbas has gradually made the transition from a relatively pale figure to a leader of stature. He has not only done this through his very serious negotiations with Ehud Olmert in 2007 and 2008, that came very close to reaching an agreement. He has also done this with two crucial statements that signal a sea change in the Palestinian narrative.

Almost two years ago, Abbas said that the second intifada was the greatest mistake the Palestinians ever made. This admission, unfortunately, is all too true: the second intifada has made most Israelis profoundly unwilling to take risks for peace. They wonder why they should, once again, trust Palestinians who blew up hundreds of Israelis when the peace process came to a standstill after the failed Camp David summit.

In his interview with Henrique Cymerman, which aired a few days ago on Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas took a second step of possibly even greater importance. He explicitly said that the Arab world and the Palestinians made a crucial error by rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947.

In doing so, Abbas is the first Palestinian leader to change a sacrosanct element of the Palestinian narrative: self-representation as pure victims. Palestinians have always spoken of the expulsion of more than 700,000 of their fellow nationals in 1948 as the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them.

While it would be both inhuman and stupid to deny the Palestinian tragedy, the Palestinians’ refusing to take any responsibility for their fate has not served them well, and has contributed to the conflict’s intractability. The rejection of the 1947 partition plan was one in a series of catastrophic mistakes they made. The first of these was choosing the intransigent Husseini clan as leaders early in the 20th century, while the latest was the shelling of Southern Israel after the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, where Palestinians have shown little political wisdom.

Abbas’ admission that the Palestinian people’s fate could have been dramatically different if they had made wiser decisions is crucially important, because the Palestinian denial of responsibility for their own fate has led them to a state of freeze. Instead of moving toward compromise with Israel, too many Palestinians have waited for too many years for a reversal of history. They forget that they joined an all out war against Israel in 1948 and that they need to accept the consequences of their decision.

The Middle Eastern conflict has been described masterfully in Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims, and the book’s title sums up one of the conflict’s essential aspects. Both sides insist that they are righteous. Both sides insist that they are victims forced into their deeds by the other side’s inhumanity, cruelty and intransigence.

Abbas’ move towards acknowledging Palestinians’ mistakes and accepting partial responsibility for their fate is of great importance. Without it, Palestinians will never be able to mourn the loss of their original homes in 1948 and to move towards compromise based on the 1967 borders. Not all Palestinians will greet Abbas’ admission with joy, but it could be an important step toward changing the intransigent rhetoric of the conflict.

It is also a truly crucial step. The position of righteous victim that both sides have been locked into has made true dialogue impossible. Each side was locked into the preconception that any genuine overture to the other side, in fact any acknowledgment of the other side’s humanity, would have grievous consequences by breaking the position of absolute righteousness.

According to Henrique Cymerman, Abbas personally made sure that the full-length forty minute interview was aired on Palestinian prime time TV “for educational purposes.” This is also a very significant step. Israelis have, for years, complained that Palestinians spoke very differently to their own constituency than to the outside world. In this case Abbas wanted to make sure that the viewers of Israel’s most viewed channel would see exactly the same as his Palestinian constituency.

Abbas also explicitly said that he would see an agreement with Israel as the end of conflict. As to the refugee question, he told Cymerman that it was clear to him that Israel could not integrate large numbers of Palestinians, and that he had endorsed the position of the Arab League Peace proposal that Israel could veto any Palestinian’s return to Israel.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have, time and again, tried to paint Abbas as the peace refusenik, but their case for this position is growing weaker. This is why Lieberman has lately chosen to air one of his beloved undiplomatic statements, saying that Abbas is the greatest obstacle to peace. Abbas is a threat to Lieberman and Israel’s right, because he weakens their case for the claim that there is no Palestinian partner for peace originally formulated by Ehud Barak. Lieberman knows that Abbas is serious about peace, and that only Olmert’s resignation prevented the signing of an agreement.

Abbas has now made his position clear to Israel’s public. He has done this loudly, clearly and without reservation. It is time for Israel’s public to ask whether it wants a government that refuses to engage with Israel’s best chance to end the Israel-Palestine conflict.