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Is Abbas Israel’s Necessary Enemy?

As we noted on Thursday, the main point to be gleaned from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations was his utter irrelevance. That Abbas was reduced to pleading with a friendly audience not to ignore his cause was both pathetic and a clear sign he is painfully aware that the international community has lost interest in him, if not the Palestinians as a whole. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke from the same podium shortly after Abbas spoke, confirmed Abbas’s insignificance by only briefly mentioning the Palestinians in remarks that were centered on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the PA head’s latest insults directed at Israel did not go completely unanswered by Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to pull his punches, pointed out the obvious when he said, as Haaretz reports:

Lieberman characterized Abbas as “the biggest obstacle to peace…everyone who heard Abbas’s speech understands that he does not intend, and does not want, to be a partner in a peace agreement,” while in a meeting in New York with foreign ministers of France, Spain, Russia and others.

Lieberman is right about all of this, but his desire to see Abbas replaced as head of the Palestinian Authority generated a response from his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who characterized Lieberman’s statement as detrimental to Israel’s interests. Barak said the alternative to Abbas’s rule in the West Bank is Hamas. That both men are basically right about Abbas sums up Israel’s peace process dilemma in a nutshell.

Though Lieberman is generally dismissed as a bull in the diplomatic china shop, his disgust with Abbas is entirely justified. The Palestinian’s stated desire for negotiations is given the lie by the fact that he has refused to negotiate for the past four years, even during a period when Israel adopted a West Bank settlement freeze. That followed his refusal even to discuss a generous peace offer from Israel in 2008 that would have given the Palestinians an independent state in almost the entire West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas has neither the interest nor the will to make peace. Whatever his personal inclinations, he knows the Palestinians won’t accept any accord that legitimizes a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, and he will never sign any treaty that would conclusively end the conflict. The PA leader sanctions the fomenting of anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel in his official media. Abbas is also corrupt and undemocratic, as he is currently serving in the eighth year of a four-year presidential term because he is afraid of facing his Hamas rivals in a free election.

But Barak is right when he notes that the alternative to Abbas is far worse. Were the Islamists of Hamas who currently run Gaza to extend their rule to the West Bank, it would produce a security nightmare for Israel. Abbas is an obstacle to a peace settlement. But the choice for Israel is not between peace with the PA or war with Hamas, but between the unsatisfactory status quo and a worsening security situation with a Hamas that has gained strength at Abbas’s expense.

The notion of a “Palestinian Spring” in which West Bankers would rise up and throw out a corrupt Fatah would not lead to either democracy or peace, but a Hamas government that would be a formula for further instability and violence.

Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu like to blame him and Israel for the stalemate in the peace process, but Israelis understand that peace simply isn’t an option until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians that might make it a possibility. The best scenario they can hope for is a continuation of a situation where terrorism is under control. For that, as Barak argues, they need Abbas and Fatah. He may be an enemy, but under the current circumstances, he appears to be a necessary one. That’s a hard truth that both left-wing Israel-haters and Israeli right-wingers must make their peace with.

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