Waiting for the Palestinian Godot
Why are we repeatedly surprised every time Mahmoud Abbas fails to sign a peace agreement with Israel?
There are some moments a journalist will never forget. In early 1997, Yossi Beilin decided to trust me, and show me the document that proved that peace was within reach. The then-prominent and creative politician from the Labor movement opened up a safe, took out a stack of printed pages, and laid them down on the table like a player with a winning poker hand.
Rumors were rife about the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, but only a few had the opportunity to see the document with their own eyes or hold it in their hands. I was one of those few. With mouth agape I read the comprehensive outline for peace that had been formulated 18 months earlier by two brilliant champions of peace -- one, Israeli, and one, Palestinian. The document left nothing to chance: Mahmoud Abbas is ready to sign a permanent agreement. The refugee from Safed had overcome the ghosts of the past and the ideas of the past, and was willing to build a joint Israeli-Palestinian future, based on coexistence. If we could only get out from under the Likud’s thumb, and get Benjamin Netanyahu out of office, he will join us, hand in hand, walking toward the two-state solution. Abbas is a serious partner for true peace, the one with whom we can make a historic breakthrough toward reconciliation.
We understood. We did what was necessary. In 1999, we ousted Likud and Netanyahu. In 2000, we went to the peace summit at Camp David. Whoops, surprise: Abbas didn’t bring the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan to Camp David, or any other draft of a peace proposal. The opposite was true: He was one of the staunchest objectors, and his demand for the right of return prevented any progress.
But don’t believe we’d give up so quickly. During the fall of 2003, as the Geneva Accord was being formulated, it was clear to us that there were no more excuses, and that now, Abbas would sign the new peace agreement and adopt its principles. Whoops, surprise: Abu Mazen sent Yasser Abed Rabbo (a former Palestinian Authority minister) instead, while he stayed in his comfy Ramallah office. No signature, no accord.
But people as steadfast as us don’t give up on our dreams. So in 2008 we got behind Ehud Olmert, and the marathon talks he held with Abbas, and the offer that couldn’t be refused. Whoops, surprise: Abu Mazen didn’t actually refuse, he just disappeared. He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no, he just vanished without a trace.
Did we start to understand that we were facing the Palestinian Yitzhak Shamir? No, no, no. In the summer of 2009, we even supported Netanyahu, when he made overtures to Abbas with his Bar-Ilan speech, and the settlement freeze. Whoops, surprise: the sophisticated objector didn’t blink, or trip up. He simple refused to dance the tango of peace with the right-wing Israeli leader.
Have we opened our eyes? Of course not. Again, we blamed Netanyahu and Likud, and believed that in 2014, Abu Mazen wouldn’t dare to say no, not to John Kerry. Whoops, surprise: In his own sophisticated, polite way, Abbas has said no in recent months to both Kerry and Barack Obama. Again, the Palestinian president’s position is clear and consistent: The Palestinians must not be required to make concessions. It’s a complicated game – squeezing more and more compromises out of the Israelis, without the Palestinians granting a single real, compromise of their own.
Take heed: Twenty years of fruitless talks have led to nothing. There is no document that contains any real Palestinian concession with Abbas’ signature. None. There never was, and there never will be.
During the 17 years that have gone by since Beilin took that document out of his safe, he’s gotten divorced, remarried, and had grandchildren. I also divorced, remarried, and brought (more) children into the world. Time passes and the experiences we’ve accumulated have taught both Beilin and me more than a few things. But many others haven’t learned a thing. They’re still allowing Abbas to make fools of them, as they wait for the Palestinian Godot, who will never show up.