Israel Must Bolster Abbas, Not His Extremist Foes

Weakening the courageous Palestinian president is one of Netanyahu's ongoing strategic mistakes, and it is liable to be one we Israelis will rue for generations.

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Abbas address PLO central council in Ramallah. April 26, 2014.
Abbas address PLO central council in Ramallah. April 26, 2014.Credit: Reuters

The murder of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah predictably produced a plethora of crazy ideas from the government’s extreme-right flank. Alongside typical demands from the school of Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett – “conduct large-scale operations against Hamas in Gaza” and “impose the death penalty on terrorists” – Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) presented a plan to “strengthen the settlements.” His plan, which was presented to the diplomatic-security cabinet and won support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, included advancing building plans and issuing tenders for construction of thousands of housing units in the settlement blocs. Ya’alon even proposed establishing a new settlement named after the murdered teens on “state lands” located in one of the blocs.

Aside from the fact that “state land” is a whitewashed term for Palestinian lands officially stolen by the state, setting up a new settlement would violate the government’s commitments to the U.S. administration. Nevertheless, what is even more disturbing is that Israel’s leadership keeps repeating the same mistake: Instead of strengthening the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, it works to weaken them.

Abbas demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership throughout the kidnapping affair. In a speech to the foreign ministers of Islamic countries in Saudi Arabia, he assailed the kidnappers harshly and demanded the boys’ return. “The settlers in the West Bank are human beings just like us, and we must search for them and return them to their families,” he said. “Whoever perpetrated this operation wants to bring ruin on us.”

Nor is this the only time Abbas has demonstrated courageous leadership. Ever since he was sworn in as PA president in 2005, he has proven, through both words and deeds, that he is a genuine partner for an agreement. He consistently worked to suppress violent actors, increased security cooperation with Israel and developed the civilian aspects of Palestinian life.

Yet instead of embracing Abbas and bolstering him, Netanyahu chose to weaken him, and thereby to strengthen his extremist rivals. It seems as if all means were legitimate to repudiate him: Aside from erecting obstacles like the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state, the Netanyahu government claimed he didn’t represent the entire Palestinian people because Gaza was controlled by Hamas. But then, after he brought Hamas into a national unity government, Israel claimed he was cooperating with a terrorist organization and therefore no agreement could be reached with him.

Weakening Abbas is one of the Netanyahu government’s ongoing strategic mistakes, and it is liable to be one we will rue for generations. In fact, the very tragedy of the murdered teens ought to make the government realize that bolstering Abbas is not just a Palestinian interest, but first and foremost a supreme Israeli interest.

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