Opinion |

Abbas Exits With One Final, Outrageous Performance. Now, America Must Contain the Damage

After a shameful speech full of bizarre canards about Israel's illegitimacy, the U.S. now knows Abbas can't, and won't, reach a Mideast peace deal. But we must also understand the same is true about Israel's current government

Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro
Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 14, 2018.
Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 14, 2018.Credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro

Call it frustration. Call it his true colors. Call it the end of the line for a leader well past his prime.

Whatever you call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' performance at the PLO Central Committee meeting last night in Ramallah, it signals his closing act as a prospective peace partner of Israel, and of the United States.

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The Palestinians, of course, have many directions in which they point the finger of blame.

They say that President Donald Trump has only attended to one sides needs. And indeed, his bungled Jerusalem announcement – an entirely justified recognition of Jerusalem as Israels capital, but disconnected from his broader plan to achieve the U.S. strategic objective of a two-state deal to end the conflict, and failing to indicate to Palestinians how their legitimate aspirations may be advanced – undercut his own envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who have been working assiduously on the presentation of a peace plan.

>> Abbas Rips Into Trump: Palestinians Are Original Canaanites, Were in Jerusalem Before the Jews

Trump then tweet-taunted Abbas, threatening to cut aid to the PA for Abbas refusal to negotiate over a plan that the United States has still not presented.

Palestinians run from smoke-grenades during clashes with Israeli security forces following a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. January 13, 2018Credit: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

They say that the Arab states, particularly the Saudis, are selling out the Palestinians in their pursuit of good relations with Trump and expanded cooperation with Israel against Iran. And indeed, previous reports (that the Palestinian president confirmed in his speech Sunday) indicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Abbas he must accept any plan that Trump presents, even if it represents a rump, divided, non-sovereign autonomy, with no capital in East Jerusalem, put Abbas in a position no Palestinian leader could accept and survive.

They say the Israeli government has shown no interest in a two-state solution. And indeed, the dominant voices in the current coalition openly oppose that outcome, talk of annexation, and promote significant settlement expansion, making it hard for Abbas to convince his public that, at present, there is an Israeli partner.

All those claims could be true. Certainly, some have merit. But even taken together, they would not make Abbas speech any less outrageous, or less definitive that he is out of the peace talks game.

His bizarre description of Israel as colonial creation of European powers, his canard that Israel has no organic connection to Jewish history, is completely inconsistent with any plausible logic of accepting a two-state deal. His accusation of Israel importing drugs to poison Palestinian youth is shameful.

And his ardent defense of the payments made to Palestinian terrorists in prison tells Israelis, Palestinians, and the U.S. Congress that he will not educate Palestinians to give up violence directed at civilians in their struggle for independence.

Heres a thought experiment: Lets say a more strategic version of Trump, capitalizing on (rather than wasting) the goodwill built up by envoys, had already - either before or together with his Jerusalem announcement -submitted a perfect plan for the "ultimate deal"/two-state solution, in which all legitimate Palestinian aspirations could be achieved. If Abbas believes the nonsense in his speech delegitimizing Israels existence, there is no way he could accept it.

Donald Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence on hand, holding up the proclamation recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, December 6, 2017. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

But what if he does not believe it? What if he was only lashing out in frustration? That raises a different question: Is he that cynical, willing to stoke myths that others believe, and which are incompatible with peace, when he gets into political trouble?

The truth is, last nights speech, even discounting for his challenging political circumstances, confirms what has been clear for some time: the United States must conclude that there is no reason to believe Abbas has it within him to take the necessary decisions to reach a peace deal with Israel.

Of course, the United States must also understand that the same can be said of the current Israeli coalition.

Those in Israel (or Washington) celebrating the demise of Abbas as a partner and any chance for a Trump peace plan should think again.

True, some pressure will be off Israel, as no one will call for hard decisions to be made. For those in the Israeli cabinet who actively oppose two states (a clear majority), they will have room to advance their plans that will make it impossible.

But that does not advance American interests of ensuring Israels future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state.

A similar thought experiment applies: Even if Abbas, or some other Palestinian leader, met every Israeli condition - recognition as a Jewish state, renouncing the right of return of refugees, extensive arrangements to ensure Israels security - there is no chance that the current coalition would meet him halfway.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. December 3, 2017Credit: \ POOL/REUTERS

Gone would be the chance to finally secure Israel the full international recognition of its legitimacy it rightfully deserves. And the prospect of open, peaceful, stabilizing relations between Israel and Sunni Arab states with whom it has an alignment of interests would be squandered.

In recent months, an interesting phenomenon has arisen called the Israel Victory Project, backed by the Middle East Forum, a conservative U.S. think tank. A number of Republican Members of Congress have expressed support for it, along with a handful of Members of Knesset from a range of parties. Its aim is to declare the end of the conflict, with all sides understanding that Israel has won, and the Palestinians have lost.

To Israel and its American supporters, its appeal is understandable, particularly its emphasis on convincing Palestinians to accept Israels permanence, and the futility of the ongoing struggle to eliminate it.

But it is utterly delusional about the implications for what comes next. The day after the conflict is declared over, with Israel the victor, the same dilemmas will apply. The Palestinians will not have gone anywhere. And indeed, they are far more likely, in those circumstances, to coalesce around the demand for one democratic state, with one person, one vote.

In that reality, what will Israel have won? It will have won the 'honor' of being a binational state. And the United State will then see its ally forced to decide if it will prioritize being a Jewish or a democratic state. Either choice could have profound implications for the U.S.- Israel relationship.

The only way to avoid that dilemma will remain the achievement of two states. And if that cannot be achieved now - which it clearly cannot - it is critical that the United States work to keep it alive for the future, sustaining a functioning Palestinian Authority, encouraging practical steps on the ground by all parties, and promoting efforts to shape attitudes for peace until better leadership dynamics emerge.

In that sense, Abbas speech changes nothing. It has long been clear that the current Palestinian leadership is too weak and indecisive to make these hard decisions, indeed to concede to its own public Israels legitimacy and permanence.

But if holding out for an Israeli victory does not also include keeping viable the two-state solution that will follow, when stronger, more realistic Palestinian leaders emerge, what a Pyrrhic victory it will be – for both Israel and the United States.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

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