The most notable attendee among the many world leaders who came to Israel to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres was the one who had the shortest distance to travel: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The PA touted his presence at the service as proof that Israel has a “partner for peace.” That’s a message that President Obama, who singled out Abbas for mention in his eulogy wanted to emphasize as he sought to encourage Israelis to follow in Peres’s footsteps and to keep pushing to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians. It’s also one that a lot of Israelis would like to believe if they had not already received ample proof that the Palestinian is anything but a peacemaker.
But as was soon made clear, the intended audience for Abbas’s gesture was not the people of Israel, let alone Netanyahu. His sole purpose for coming was to help persuade the president to back his effort to use the United Nations as a vehicle to avoid peace talks with Israel.
Abbas was playing a delicate and dangerous game in going to the funeral. He opened himself up to vicious criticism from his Hamas rivals and some within his own Fatah Party who condemn any signs of normalization of relations with Israel. But Abbas attempted to make up for it with a fiery speech given the next day in Bethlehem in which he vowed to end the occupation—a term that most Palestinians believe applies to all of Israel and not just the West Bank. What’s more, he vowed that this would be achieved not by returning to negotiations with Israel but via international pressure and United Nations votes. Abbas hopes the UN will grant the Palestinians independence without—as the Oslo Accords Shimon Peres helped craft insisted—first making peace with Israel.
No one should confuse such a scenario in which, with President Obama’s acquiescence in the form of a U.S. decision not to veto a Palestinian independence resolution in the Security Council, the UN grants Abbas’s request with the peace that Peres sought.
If a two-state solution was the actual goal of the Palestinians, they could have achieved it several times in the last 16 years when Israel offered them just such a deal. But the Palestinians have stalled and said “no” each time. Their pursuit of their ultimate goal of Israel’s destruction remains inextricably linked to their sense of national identity. That’s why Abbas, and Yasir Arafat before him, have always carefully balanced a need to appeal to Western support with speeches in Arabic to their own people, in which they reassure them that the war will continue no matter what else happens. A victory for the Palestinians at the UN will likely mean another terrorist offensive meant to pressure the Israelis to make more concessions not the end of the conflict.
President Obama will have a brief window of opportunity after the election and before the inauguration of a new president in which, freed from political constraints, he can make one more effort to achieve the “daylight” between Israel and the United States that he has sought since he took office in 2009. The most sympathetic interpretation of this stand is that he believes he can best help Israel by saving it from itself and imposing peace terms upon it. In doing so, he has always sought to undercut the verdict of Israeli democracy that rejected Peres’s idealism with Netanyahu’s pragmatism. The Israeli people want peace as much as Obama, but they understand that the events of the past 23 years since the Oslo Accords were signed have proven that the Palestinians are not yet ready to make peace.
If Abbas were serious about peace, he would be wooing Israel’s people with the sort of gesture that Anwar Sadat made when he went to Jerusalem and spoke to the Knesset. He would cease the incitement to violence coming from the PA media and condemn terror rather than applaud it. He would return to talks with Netanyahu and this time stick with the process rather than torpedoing them as he did the last time in 2014 with his outreach to Hamas and decision to bypass negotiations by going to the UN.
But instead, he is hoping that Obama will reward his funeral visit with one more attempt to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians. That means doing just enough to convince the Americans that he’s interested in peace without ever committing himself to actually ending the conflict rather than merely continuing it on more advantageous terms, as Arafat shamelessly did when he fooled Peres with Oslo. That’s a gambit that an administration that was truly dedicated to peace wouldn’t fall for.