There was no pistol on his hip, no swaggering in military fatigues, not even a hint of threatened violence. With a few bold strokes of his pen, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas taught Israel and the United States a lesson in international affairs, forcing them to eat diplomatic dirt for failing to fulfill a clear commitment to release the fourth batch of long-term Palestinian prisoners.
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Without a single shot fired or bomb exploded, Abbas catapulted himself to the role of Palestinian hero and cemented his moral leadership of the Palestinian cause. Even Hamas was impressed.
Some Israeli commentators condemned him for using the tactics of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, but their memories are short. When Arafat made a similar move - refusing to end the then three-week-old intifada at the now forgotten Clinton-Arafat-Barak-Mubarak summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in October 2000 - he dragged the US president and secretary of state halfway round the world just so he could spit in their face. His refusal then to sign an agreed ceasefire that would have silenced the intifada just weeks after it began was accompanied by a killing spree that sent Palestinians spiraling into a vortex of suicide bombs and diplomatic disaster.
Abbas’s coup on Wednesday night was more subtle, more effective and places the Palestinians in pole position for the next round of diplomatic maneuvering. He outflanked Netanyahu and proved to the Americans - and his own people - that he is a force to be reckoned with even as he eschews the use of force.
The appeal to international bodies to recognize the State of Palestine is a masterstroke. There is not even a threat of physical violence, but with the unspoken threat that Palestine may soon apply for membership of the International Court of Justice, Abbas has elegantly unsheathed a diplomatic Damoclean sword aimed straight at the heart of Israeli legitimacy.
In that unsympathetic forum, Israel’s actions on the West Bank will be revealed in the harsh light of forensic justice and tested with the full force of international law. It is a test that Israel fears, with some reason, that it will fail.
Arafat's violence brought the Palestinians to the international agenda, but since Oslo it dragged him down and did nothing but damage to his people. Abbas is no shrinking violet. He is a former terrorist leader who was deeply involved, among many other atrocities, in the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972.
But Abbas long ago disavowed violence and urged his people to embrace peaceful protest, even at the height of the second intifada, risking his reputation and creating a deep rift with the stubborn Arafat.
His presidency has long lost all legitimacy in law. There should have been elections years ago. But there is no doubting the legitimacy of his leadership, or his commitment to peace. Where Arafat encouraged suicide bombers with his repeated boasts of "millions of martyrs," Abbas advocates peaceful boycotts and the creative use of diplomatic channels to pursue the rights of his people. Israel finds these threatening, but that does not make them wrong.
Arafat loved his guns and militias, but the quiet bespectacled man in the grey suit has brought the Palestinians closer to statehood than Arafat ever would or could. He may even take them all the way to independence.
The irony is that so far the Palestinians have made no concrete concessions whatsoever in the talks with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. That’s why US Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to come up with the faintly ludicrous idea that the US should put something on the table in the form of releasing the hapless Jonathan Pollard.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrogance in agreeing to the unpopular prisoner release, then refusing to implement it as promised, has been repaid in spades. Netanyahu would prefer to negotiate with the Americans rather than the Palestinians, but if he is to fulfill his declared dream of disengaging Israel from the West Bank morass, he will have to face Abbas, not Obama.
This week, Abbas proved he is equal to that challenge.