THE BLOG

If Not Now, When? If Not Abbas, Who?

Suppose Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told an interviewer that he'll never recognize Israel or accept any agreement that doesn't give the Palestinians every inch of historic Palestine, including all of Jerusalem.  He insists on full Palestinian right of return - including his own right of return to his native Safed, which since 1948 has been part of Israel -- and maintains that it is the Palestinians' right to use all means, including violence, to achieve their goals.
 
Even in a week where the major story is U.S. presidential elections, this interview would have been big news.  Abbas' words would have been denounced by politicians and pundits.  The press would have been replete with op-eds and analyses arguing that Abbas is an enemy of peace, Israel, the Jewish people, and the civilized world.
 
That's the imaginary scenario.  In reality, Abbas gave an interview last Friday to Israeli TV in which he recognized Israel within the 1967 borders, said that a future state of Palestine would be limited to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, recognized that Safed is part of Israel and said he does not expect to return to it, and repeated his opposition to Palestinian violence.
 
The deafening silence in response to this interview -- in U.S. political circles and in the organizational Jewish community -- is telling.  For years critics and skeptics of peace efforts have asked: Where is the Palestinian leader truly ready to live in peace with Israel?  Where is the partner?
 
Well, here he is.  Here's a Palestinian leader who talks the talk and walks the walk, even at tremendous political risk. 
 
Unsurprisingly, some Palestinians condemned Abbas' brave words.  Others, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, dismissed his words as not credible, seizing on the Palestinians' ongoing campaign to gain non-member state status in the United Nations as evidence of Abbas' bad faith.  This argument rings hollow, given that all indications are that this UN effort, like the previous Palestinian UN effort, will be premised on terms similar to those Abbas laid out in his interview.  Moreover, what Abbas said last Friday wasn't a one-off; Abbas has said similar things, including in Arabic, in the past.
 
On the ground, Abbas has overseen unprecedented security cooperation with Israel and clamped down on incitement and violence.  He has consistently demonstrated that he believes his people's future lies in a state that will be limited to 22% of historic Palestine, with the details to be determined through negotiations.  Abbas has remained committed to this vision even in the face of the most pro-settlement, anti-peace Israeli leadership in decades.
 
There is no doubt: Abbas is a leader with whom Israel could make peace, if Israel's leaders truly wanted to do so.  Regrettably, it appears that isn't the goal of Israel's current leaders.  Rather, in word and deed, many of those in power in Israel today make it clearer every day -- including with the announcement, only days after Abbas' interview, of new settlement construction -- that their goal is to make such a solution impossible.
 
If they keep this up, then they -- and the rest of the world -- can rest assured, Abbas won't last much longer in his current job.  But let no one have any illusions: under these circumstances, Abbas won't be replaced by a new Palestinian leader who is more willing to make "peace" with Israel based on the kind of terms that Netanyahu and his ilk are offering -- terms that are tantamount to permanent disenfranchisement, deprivation of rights, and abject humiliation. 
 
Rather, he'll be replaced by leaders who, like too many of their Israeli counterparts in power today, reject the two-state formula, scoff at the notion of mutual respect and reconciliation, and are determined to pursue a zero-sum agenda by any means and at any cost.  Even Hamas will seem moderate in comparison to what is likely to emerge.
 
Abbas is telling the world: There's still another option, an option that holds the promise of real peace and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians.  Regrettably, many in Israel and the United States appear to be saying that this option is no longer of interest. 
 
With his decisive reelection Tuesday night, President Obama now has an historic opportunity -- and responsibility -- to send a different message.

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