By asking the United Nations to recognize Palestinian independence, Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority have abandoned the peace process in the hope the international community will give them what they want without having to make peace with Israel. That puts Abbas’ Western cheering section in a bind, because it is impossible to look at his strategy or his UN speech without understanding the fundamental disconnect between their position and any hope for peace. But that hasn’t stopped many of them from attempting to turn the facts on their head by blaming the whole mess on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is an easy target among the foreign policy establishment and other members of the chattering classes because he refuses to play along with the myth of Palestinian reasonableness that is such an integral part of the peace process mindset. William Saletan provided an excellent example of this willful blindness in a piece published this week in Slate. In it, he preposterously claims the standoff is all a clever plot by Netanyahu to obfuscate the truth about Abbas’ desperate search for peace that is every bit as disingenuous as the Palestinian’s hate-filled speech to the General Assembly.
Saletan breaks down Netanyahu’s diabolical attack on peace to four points. The first is his claim the Israeli is wrong to say the Palestinians won’t negotiate, even though that is the obvious truth. Even during the 10 months when, at the behest of the Obama administration, Netanyahu froze building in the West Bank, Abbas wouldn’t talk with him.
Saletan asserts that a few secret meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres in which the Palestinians have refused to agree to any terms or to resume formal negotiations is itself a form of negotiation. He then says Abbas’ end run around the peace process to the UN is also merely a negotiating tactic. In other words, Abbas’ lips may say “no,” but Saletan advises the Israelis to believe he really means “yes.” With that sort of logic, one supposes Saletan must have a lot of fans among male college students who haven’t had much success with women.
Next, Saletan dismisses Israel’s insistence the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a mere pretext for avoiding peace. Saletan says the PLO recognized Israel’s existence in the Oslo Accords, and it’s none of the Palestinians’ business how Israel defines itself. But he is deliberately missing the point. So long as the Palestinians won’t acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, Israelis have no guarantee a peace deal isn’t an interim step that will merely postpone the next round of fighting. Saletan says negotiating a resolution of the Palestinian claim that the descendants of the 1948 refugees can “return” to Israel doesn’t mean the Arabs have to say the words “Jewish state.” But they must do so, because without that Palestinians will never construe any peace agreement as an end to the century-old conflict.
In a particularly dishonest passage, Saletan claims Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan (which has no mention of the “Jewish state” issue) proves Netanyahu’s insistence on this point is a pretext. But it does no such thing. Jordan and Israel can be at peace because the Hashemite Kingdom’s existence isn’t predicated on wiping out its neighbor. Since the focus of Palestinian nationalism has always been the eradication of Israel, they must specifically abandon this quest. The United Nations sanctioned the creation of a specifically “Jewish state” alongside an Arab one in Mandatory Palestine in the 1947 partition resolution that was categorically rejected by the Arab and Muslim worlds. If the Palestinians want to finally retract that refusal, one of the things they will have to accept is this language.
This point is directly related to Saletan’s third charge, which is that Netanyahu’s harping about Abbas’ belief that all of Israel is occupied Palestinian territory is a ploy to blow up the chances for peace. The Israeli rightly noted that for Abbas to say there has been 63 years of “occupation” gives the lie to the notion the conflict is just about the West Bank and Jerusalem or settlements. Saletan argues that Abbas has already said he will concede Israel’s title to pre-1967 Israel, and this should end the discussion. But so long as the Palestinians hold onto an irredentist ideology that sees all of Israel as land that must be recovered, peace is impossible. If Abbas wants Israelis to believe they are not just giving up land that will be used, as was the case with Gaza in 2005, as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on what is left of Israel, then he must sing a very different tune.
Lastly, Saletan argues the reduction of terrorist attacks against Israelis in the West Bank in the past few years proves Abbas means what he says about peace. But lowering the toll of Jewish casualties had little or nothing to do with Abbas and everything to do with the security fence and the aggressive Israeli army patrols and checkpoints in the West Bank. The circumstances that led to the quiet in the West Bank in the past few years after the mayhem of the second intifada that preceded it would be dramatically altered by a Palestinian state. If the IDF no longer had the ability to roam the area, that would allow terror groups — both those run by Abbas’ Fatah Party and Hamas — to do whatever they wanted. That would inevitably mean more Jewish blood shed, but it would also doom Abbas, because the only thing that prevents the sort of coup that won Gaza for Hamas in the West Bank is Israel’s military. It isn’t Abbas who keeps the peace now, and the idea he would do so in the future without the help of the IDF and with Hamas still in control of Gaza is absurd.
The refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate and to be willing to give up the conflict remains the only real obstacle to peace. Abbas proved in 2008 when he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of a state that he had the power to end the conflict against the will of his people or Hamas. That’s why he went to the UN rather than back to the negotiating table. Fallacious attacks on Netanyahu such as those produced by Saletan may help obscure the truth about the Palestinians, but they cannot alter the truth about the situation.