Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.
If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):
Given the success of Israel’s military counteroffensives against Hamas in Gaza, this is not simply a vote of no confidence. No confidence would be eight or nine steps up from where Abbas and negotiations currently rank among the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Though the article lays out the case that Abbas is the last chance for peace between the two peoples, it really ends up making a slightly different point: Arafat ruined his would-be country; Abbas is finishing it off for good. That’s because, as Jonathan Schanzer has reported and Birnbaum echoes here, Abbas has no successor. Hamas is waiting in the wings, which is why it may not even matter. Birnbaum went to Gaza, he said, to find the elusive moderate Hamasnik. Here is a quote from the single most moderate Hamas person he spoke to, Ahmed Yousef, when Birnbaum raised the issue of the Jews needing and deserving a safe haven:
“Go to Germany,” he replied curtly. “All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships.”
Keep that in mind as we are told again and again that there are moderate, pragmatic Hamasniks who understand political reality and need only be given the chance to participate in the process. “Go to Germany” is the nicest thing Hamas has to say.
Abbas’s health is failing, Birnbaum reports, though it’s unclear how quickly. And Fatah is a mess. And Hamas is willing to let the Jews live on the condition they go back to Germany. And yet it is unclear why this is such a compelling case to sign a deal with Abbas. He appears to represent virtually no one, which means there is no one to uphold any deal after Abbas. What could such an agreement be worth, even if miraculously signed?
In fact, for those who said Olmert couldn’t possibly muster the political capital to follow through on his deal–and rightly so–what’s the argument that Abbas could follow through on his end? Sharon at least had Olmert, who tried to keep making concessions. And Olmert had Livni, who tried foolishly to oust Olmert when his back was turned but at least was willing to pick up the peacemaking mantle she attempted to pry from his hands.
Arafat could enforce an agreement, though he’d never sign one. Abbas can’t do either. Birnbaum’s piece makes clear Abbas is avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, who American advisors told Birnbaum is much more willing to make peace than his critics say. But we already knew that. Abbas has no desire for a true, lasting peace. But we already knew that too.