Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the start of the ninth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo today by attending a summit with the leader of the rival Hamas group. Abbas was summoned to the meeting due to pressure from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is expected to help pressure Gulf nations to donate money to the perpetually bankrupt PA. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has long sought to promote the idea of Palestinian unity, something that would strengthen the position of their Hamas allies. This worries Abbas, who also remains the head of the hopelessly incompetent and corrupt Fatah movement that runs the PA. But while there is little likelihood that this latest conclave between the two groups will lead to an actual merger and power sharing in the West Bank and Gaza, the signs are clear that they are moving closer to each other in other ways.
That was made plain by another and perhaps more significant event today. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is the terrorist wing of Fatah and was responsible for many terrorist attacks on Israelis during the second intifada. It hasn’t been heard from much in recent years as Abbas played the moderate to the applause of Americans and left-wing Israelis. But the march by armed fighters belonging to the group in a refugee camp near Nablus was an ominous warning that the reports filtering out of the West Bank about plans for a third intifada by the PA may be more than rumors. This gives the lie to the claims made by both the Obama administration and Israeli President Shimon Peres on behalf of Abbas’s bona fides as a peacemaker. This is something the Obama administration ought to take into consideration before they launch another attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to jump-start peace talks.
For four years, Abbas has done everything possible to avoid having to return to the negotiating table with Israel. Despite the best efforts of President Obama to tip the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ favor, Abbas wouldn’t deal with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu even after he froze settlement building and pledged to support a two-state solution. He compounded that by doing an end run around U.S.-sponsored talks and getting the United Nations to upgrade the PA’s observer status at the world body.
The possibility of another Middle East initiative from Obama may worry friends of Israel. But it is also a concern to Abbas, who will do anything to avoid being put in the position of having to turn down peace and statehood as he did in 2008 and his predecessor Yasir Arafat did in 2000 and 2001.
The Palestinians may be thinking that they can generate more sympathy for themselves and pressure on Israel by reverting to violence than by returning to the negotiating table that they have spurned for the last four years. That may cause some Americans to redouble their efforts to pressure Netanyahu in a futile effort to appease the Palestinians, but doing so would miss the point of Fatah’s return to its terrorist origins. Abbas won’t make peace, not just because he’s weak and his followers don’t want to end the conflict. If he’s showing signs of unleashing the Al Aksa killers again it is because that is the best and perhaps only way for Fatah to compete with Hamas for the affections of West Bank Arabs. In the upside-down world of Palestinian politics, violence against Jews, rather than efforts to improve the lives of the people, remains the ticket to popularity. If a Fatah-Hamas merger is ever to take place, it will mean a contest between the two, and the only way for Abbas’s faction to hold its own is to unleash another intifada.
President Obama ought to be reacting to these developments by making it clear to Abbas that he will lose the support of the United States as well as his European donors if he fails to talk to Israel or if he gives the green light to the Al Aksa Martyrs to start shooting. If, instead of that sensible course, he concentrates his fire on the Netanyahu government, an opportunity to stop another round of bloodshed may be lost.