The Partner Who Had No Partner

The conduct of Abbas, the most courageous partner we have had, is in large measure a by-product of our missed opportunities.

In announcing last week that he would not run for reelection as president of the Palestinian Authority, in effect Mahmoud Abbas is also stepping down from his unofficial position as leader of the dialogue with Israel-"our partner" as we say here.

In all fairness, we need to note the path this man has taken leading up to his announcement on Thursday at the PA's Muqata headquarters in Ramallah. In May of 2002, Abbas condemned the second intifada, which was then raging full force. He came out strongly against the senseless use of terrorism and called for a return to negotiations. In April of 2003, he came out in support of a draft agreement, called the Gaza Pilot, which I composed with two of his representatives. This plan called for a year during which the Palestinian Authority would gradually take control of Gaza and eradicate terrorism, to be followed by an Israeli withdrawal from the Strip. The plan was sent to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, but he rejected it. Instead he resorted to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, which, as we know, was not conditioned on stamping out terror.

In September of 2003, Abbas resigned from the PA in an act of opposition to Yasser Arafat and his policies. Arafat - about whom it was said that as long as he was in charge at the Muqata, there would be no progress in the peace process - died in November of 2004. Abbas was elected to succeed him in January 2005, with 62 percent of the vote. The Israeli government did not take advantage of this development. The withdrawal from Gaza was not handed to Abbas as a gesture which could have greatly strengthened his position vis-a-vis Hamas. Instead, Gaza was handed to Hamas, unilaterally, and we all know what the consequences were.

In July of 2005, Abbas approved an agreement of understanding which I drafted with a senior Fatah official appointed to the task. The document was to serve as the basis for renewed negotiations on a final peace plan, and was to be presented in the run-up to elections in both Israel and the PA as a joint document of Fatah and the Labor Party. It included the agreed-upon principles of a final agreement as well as a long list of unresolved issues that were to be subject to negotiation. In practical terms, the Hamas victory in the January 2006 Palestinian election rendered the document useless.

On April 19, 2006, after the Israeli elections but before Ehud Olmert's government took office, I met with Abbas at his home in Ramallah. He asked that negotiations resume immediately with the new Israeli government and that he be put in touch right away with a contact person to be appointed by the prime minister. I conveyed the full contents of my conversation to the prime minister's office without delay, but in response I was told that the prime minister had no interest in the matter. The Annapolis Conference convened just a year and a half later. In September of 2008, Prime Minister Olmert and Abbas came to understandings that were to lead to an actual agreement. In the interim, however, the corruption allegations against Olmert meant he could no longer convert those understandings into a formal decision.

Abbas, who courageously remained determined to pursue the path of negotiations, was not only discouraged by the turn of events in Israel which I outlined above. The Arab states, too, turned their backs on the Palestinian problem, and some of them have been in bed with Hamas. The United States, meanwhile, has gone soft and shown a conciliatory side that is not leading to any results.

The conduct of Abbas, the most courageous partner we have had, is in large measure a by-product of our missed opportunities. It is the result of an arrogance and lack of interest in what is happening within the PA, just five kilometers from the Israeli prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

Abbas' withdrawal from his leading role in contacts with Israel is good news for anyone who fears a solution to the conflict and anyone not ready to pay the price. For everyone else who still understands the world in which we live, and who fears for the fate of the Jewish state, this is a wake-up call.

The writer is a former cabinet minister. He is chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Academic College of Netanya.