Yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received two significant mentions in the press. The first was from President Obama, who quoted Sharon in his speech to Israeli youth. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Obama said in Sharon’s name, telling the crowd to make peace with the Palestinians and warning against the quest for a Greater Israel. Quoting Sharon was a wise choice to express this sentiment. It isn’t just American presidents, Obama was saying, who believe in the necessity of the two-state solution; King Arik–once the architect of a sovereign Greater Israel–said so too.
But the other instance of Sharon’s name cropping up again yesterday was far less laudatory of the man still in a coma. The Times of Israel posted a video released by the Palestinians in Gaza, in which Palestinian women, under the proud, smiling gaze of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used Sharon’s face as target practice on a public shooting range. This is relevant to Obama’s speech as well. The address, which was well written and well delivered, had passages everyone could agree with. But no paragraph was more observant or insightful than when Obama said this:
This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division.
I am not going to claim here that the president reads COMMENTARY, but I’m satisfied with rhetoric coming from Obama that even raises the possibility. Because this paragraph is something we have echoed here, repeatedly, in the wake of the Arab Spring. I don’t know if Obama fully appreciates, understands, or accepts the implications of that quote. But that quote is the key to understanding the challenge of Arab-Israeli peace and the failed legacy that Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to leave behind him.
The Arab Spring has changed the calculus for any peace negotiations. The mirage of stability has given way to the reality and realization of the populist power of the Arab street. Signing a treaty with an unpopular, undemocratic, unaccountable, and unrepresentative autocrat is, in the new Middle East, something close to worthless. And that is precisely why those who say that Israel must seize the opportunity to strike a deal with Abbas are missing the point. This crowd, which had the loudest voice in Ben Birnbaum’s piece on Abbas, says two things about the man: he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel has ever had, and he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel is likely to ever have. The first half of that statement is utterly meaningless. But the second contains the key to the conflict.
If Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the Palestinian people (at least in the West Bank) and represents Palestinian society to the international community (at least on paper), will be succeeded by more hateful and less peaceful Palestinian leaders in any plausible scenario, then he has presided over the seeding and sowing of that hatred. If the Palestinian people are ever to make peace with Israel, then the state-sponsored anti-Semitism has to stop. The incitement to violence has to stop. The state-sponsored celebration of murderers has to stop. The denial of Jewish history and connection to the land has to stop. Abbas rules over a vast bureaucracy that energetically poisons the minds of Palestinian children with a hatred that destroys everything it touches.
What will a future with such a generation look like? It will look like the Palestinian women in Gaza shooting bullets at the picture of a Jewish leader in a coma. That picture, you’ll note, is attached to one corner of a giant Jewish Star of David. The women may be shooting at Sharon (and the others pictured there), but the more important, and indelible, image is of them shooting at the representation of the Jewish people.
Abbas has shown that he has no desire to sign a peace deal with Israel. But even if he did, what would it accomplish? Obama is right: true peace must be made between the people. The lack of such a peace will be Abbas’s most distinct, and unforgivable, legacy.