What Is Mahmoud Abbas Up to?

03/30/2011 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2011
  • Alan Elsner Author, 'Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is on a quest to make peace -- with Hamas.

He's so anxious to kiss and make up with the Islamic fundamentalists who slaughtered his Fatah loyalists in 2007, driving the survivors out of Gaza, that he's apparently willing to sacrifice $470 million in annual U.S. aid.

What is Abbas up to?

Apparently, his wish to reconcile with Iranian-backed Hamas is connected to his plan to win United Nations recognition for a unilateral declaration of Palestinians statehood on the borders of the 1949 Arab-Israeli armistice -- that is to say, the pre-1967 borders.

The idea is to skip the painful process of negotiating a peace deal with Israel, which would involve tough compromises and sacrifices on both sides including border adjustments and some land swaps so that Israel can have defensible borders, as well as agreement on Jerusalem to keep the city united while giving both sides a stake in its future. Instead, the Palestinian president seems to envisage a painless stroll through the friendly corridors of the United Nations General Assembly where hostility to Israel is a permanent feature.

Abbas apparently feels it would strengthen his case if he were able to speak for Palestinians in Gaza as well as those in the West Bank. He may also be sending a message to President Obama and European leaders that they should increase pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, including a complete cessation of construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem neighborhoods -- or else he will go to Hamas.

But as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week, "You can't have peace with Israel and Hamas. It's one or the other, but not both."

As Netanyahu pointed out, the Hamas Charter, never revoked, calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. So it's hard to figure out how Abbas plans to get to a real Palestinian state -- as opposed to a piece of paper endorsed by the General Assembly.

The danger of the unilateral route is clear. Such an approach negates decades of peace-making in the Middle East. The international peace Quartet and the Arab initiative both refer to a negotiated settlement. The peace process is the product of decades of effort aimed at producing a solution. There is no short cut, no magic declaration or incantation that can cut the Gordian knot. The issues are tough and thorny -- but the only way to make peace is through negotiation.

Abbas' other problem is that Hamas seems in no hurry to reconcile with him. On the contrary, they have stepped up rocket attacks on Israel in a bid to ratchet up regional tensions. According to a count maintained by The Israel Project, they have already fired 168 rockets, missiles and mortar rounds at Israeli civilians this year compared to 238 for all of 2010.

Still, Israeli officials are paying attention to the Palestinian moves. Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Israel informed the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council last week, as well as several other prominent European Union countries, that if the Palestinians press ahead with their plan, Israel could respond with unilateral moves of its own.

Abbas is playing with fire. The West Bank economy has been booming for the past two years with GDP growing at around nine percent and unemployment falling dramatically. New businesses are being formed and prosperity is spreading.

But the Palestinian Authority remains heavily reliant on foreign aid. If Hamas -- listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization -- were to be brought into the Palestinian government, it's hard to see how U.S. aid could continue. All that progress would be put at risk.

Negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians is already difficult and it won't get any easier in the future. But it's still the only way.