The new leader
Abbas is not known for either his charisma or his rhetoric. Sometimes he makes decisions that he regrets immediately, as with the Goldstone report and his announcement that he would not run in the next PA elections
There is no new peace plan, no new proposals and no pressure at all. Thus Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began an interview to Al Jazeera Thursday night. One might also add that there is no new Abbas. He is the same leader and his conditions for peace have not changed since he came to power: a divided Jerusalem, a "just and agreed-upon" resolution of the refugee problem, and minor territorial concessions in the form of an "exchange of territories of equal size and quality." This is the entire doctrine.
Indeed, it does not matter whether it is Abbas, Yasser Arafat or any other Palestinian leader. When decision-time approaches the fundamentals underlying any arrangement only increase in strength. The Israeli assumption that Abbas is more "moderate," that he could be a partner in crime, is unfounded: The negotiations are vis-a-vis the fundamentals, not Abbas.
Abbas is not known for either his charisma or his rhetoric. Sometimes he makes decisions that he regrets immediately, as with the Goldstone report and his announcement that he would not run in the next PA elections. But he knows what he does not want: The fundamentals of the Palestinian state will not be destroyed under his watch. Anyone intending to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while Abbas is in office must see to it that the Palestinian state has final, recognized borders that hew close to those of 1967 and that its capital is no less holy than that of Israel. The rest is tactics.
But it turns out that when it comes to tactics, too, Abbas can be deceptive. After all, just a minute ago Ehud Olmert's arm was wrapped around his shoulder, he was a regular visitor in the prime minister's residence and his political partner Ahmed Qureia was at home in the office of Tzipi Livni. And now he is in a snit. "Abbas is on his high horse," "He is making impossible demands," "Who's even heard of a total halt in construction in the settlements, much less Jerusalem?" Palestinians, too, are voicing such sentiments. After all, Abbas had agreed to negotiate with Olmert when construction in the territories was at its peak. Did he only now remember all this?
Abbas seems to be holding onto his 15 minutes of fame with all his might. As if, for as long as he refuses to talk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he can enjoy the view from the top of the roller coaster before it plunges down to earth. Abbas is being wooed by U.S. President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, and even Netanyahu is begging him to return to the negotiating table. In his stubbornness, so it seems, it is Abbas who is setting the agenda. This "weak" leader suddenly holds the cards, and is refusing to play them.
But that is precisely Abbas' game. So long as he is the sole negotiator he might be slapped on the back but he does not have a single significant achievement to show for it. Now he is changing his tack. From now on his aim is to move the negotiations to the international and inter-Arab arenas. Anyone who wants to bring him back to the negotiating table will also have to drag in Obama, the European Union and the leaders of the Arab states. All signatories to the road map will be asked to fulfill its conditions. If Obama managed to force Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction, even partially, then he should complete this move: Abbas is justified in asking how Obama can guarantee the implementation of any deal if he is unable to pressure Israel on this issue.
If the leaders of the Arab states want a deal then they should kindly put pressure on the White House. Abbas is no longer willing to represent the Quartet, which to date has not shown any ability to advance the peace process. Henceforth the Quartet will be Abbas' representative, so the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can return to the international arena rather than sinking once more into the ditch between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
It seems that Israel has not yet taken this change on board. Officials in Jerusalem are still celebrating their "success" in maneuvering Washington into concessions on the construction freeze. They are operating on the assumption that all they have to do is hold out for eight more months until the freeze is over. After all, life is beautiful, security cooperation with the Palestinians is excellent, the situation is quiet, Hamas has been blocked and there is no rush. When the explosion comes, we will of course know how to handle it.