The dynamic of the Middle East peace process hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. Americans and Israelis long for Palestinian leaders to enunciate moderate positions that might make peace possible but tend to misinterpret the mixed signals that are sent from Israel’s negotiating partners. They seize on ambivalent statements that give some inkling of a desire for peace but ignore those utterances that make it clear the Palestinians still have no interest in ending the conflict, especially those made in Arabic to very different audiences. That was what happened every time Yasir Arafat spoke in English when meeting with Americans or Israelis and the same is true for Mahmoud Abbas, his more presentable successor.
This dynamic was on display this weekend when Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president currently serving the 10th year of the four-year term to which he was elected, met with a group of Israeli students. As the Times of Israel reports, Abbas told the delegation of Israelis that he didn’t want to flood Israel with refugees or to re-divide the city of Jerusalem. Taken out of context and ignoring contrary statements from Abbas and other Palestinian leaders and you get the impression that this is a man ready to make peace. No doubt that will be the interpretation placed on these remarks by those seeking to push the Israeli government for more concessions to the Palestinians or to blame it for the ultimate failure of the current negotiations championed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But a clear-eyed look at Abbas shows just how misleading that would be. Rather than moving closer to peace, Abbas is repeating the routine Arafat perfected in which Israelis and Americans are told what they want to hear while Palestinians get a very different message from their government.
A shift on the Palestinian stance on refugees would mean a lot. As long as the PA holds onto its demand for the so-called “right of return” for refugees and their descendants, it means their goal remains Israel’s eradication. Similarly, recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn would also herald a redefinition of Palestinian nationalism from a creed rooted primarily in rejection of Zionism to one oriented toward developing their own nation.
But even in this seemingly positive statement, Abbas left himself plenty of wriggle room. Saying that he doesn’t wish to “flood” Israel doesn’t mean he’s renounced the right of return. How many Arabs constitute a flood? The answer is amorphous much in the same way previous comments by Abbas have hinted at a change without really delivering it. The point being that nothing short of a concrete renunciation of this longstanding demand means anything.
But let’s assume for a moment that Abbas is actually interested in giving up the right of return. If he were to make such an earth-shaking turnabout, is it remotely possible that he would do so while speaking to an Israeli audience rather than to a gathering of his own people in their own language? The answer is no.
As it was with Arafat, who would say to Western reporters he had chosen peace with Israel while telling Palestinians that all he had done was to sign a temporary truce that would be followed by more conflict, Abbas is also playing a double game. Far from echoing Abbas’s moderate statements to the Israeli students, the Palestinian media continues to broadcast and publish a never-ending stream of incitement against Jews and Israel in which terrorism is praised. Indeed, as Palestine Media Watch noted, Abbas has recently personally praised acts of terror against Israeli students.
The same point applies to his pledge not to divide Jerusalem since in the same address he told the Israelis that he would never allow Israel to control the Western Wall, let alone the Temple Mount in the capital’s Old City. In other words, even in the unlikely event of a peace treaty, worship at Judaism’s most sacred places would be dependent on Fatah goodwill rather than Jewish rights.
Another key obstacle to peace is the same one that deterred Kerry’s predecessors from attempting to revive the talks with Israel: Hamas. Though Abbas pretends that the terrorist rulers of Gaza will go along with any agreement he strikes with the Israelis, they continue to exercise a veto over peace that will deter him in much the same way Arafat knew that his signature on a treaty would be a death warrant.
So what is Abbas doing?
It’s not much of a mystery. The Palestinian leader is orchestrating a campaign aimed at diverting Western attention from a negotiating stance based on intransigence rather than moderation. Just as Arafat’s occasional statements about peace distracted both the Western media and the government of the United States from the actual policies he was pursuing as well as the rejectionist culture he had further entrenched via his media and the schools run by the PA, Abbas is trying to do the same thing. In this case, it is part of a game of chicken he’s been playing with Israel’s government to avoid blame for Kerry’s inevitable failure.
Israel should remain open to the possibility that someday the Palestinians will undergo the sort of sea change that will enable their leaders to embrace peace with Israel. But until that actually happens, both the Jewish state and its American ally should ignore Abbas’s deceptions.