Over the weekend Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Cairo at the Arab League conference. Precisely what Abbas said to the foreign ministers of the other Arab countries remains unclear, as his keynote address was declared a closed session at the last minute. However, during his stay in Cairo Abbas was meeting with Egyptian President Sisi and others in an effort to drum up regional support for his new peace initiative. Indeed, the head of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, has hailed Abbas as being ready to negotiate a final settlement.
Washington is noticeably less confident. After Abbas dispatched his chief negotiators to meet with Secretary Kerry, U.S. officials have criticized the plan as “unilateral” and even hinted that there would be an American veto should Abbas seek to pursue his plan at the United Nations and in the Security Council.
This chilly response from the administration, usually so impetuous about racing ahead with the peace process, should certainly send some alarm bells ringing. After all, given that Abbas all but shut down the last round of peace negotiations, finally fleeing them just at the moment at which a decision had to be made about their extension, one has to wonder why he is suddenly so eager to resume the talks. And why now exactly? Having apparently been only too pleased to escape the negotiation table, why is Abbas suddenly so determined to be seen as reengaging?
After all, Abbas had every opportunity to continue with the U.S. sponsored negotiations that the Palestinian Authority had been participating in until May of this year. Yet Abbas had refused to extend the talks unless his extensive list of demands were met in advance, insisting that the Palestinians would instead pursue membership of several key international bodies. The Israelis had agreed to a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian terror prisoners that they would release provided that Abbas agreed to press on with negotiations and stay away from the international bodies. Abbas chose to forgo both the additional prisoner releases and an extension of the talks. Now he insists he is ready to get back to talking peace with Israel.
One reason for Abbas’s sudden turnaround stems from his own Fatah faction’s standing in the wake of the recent war in Gaza. It might be assumed that after the death and destruction that Hamas’s war wrought on the people of Gaza, that terror group would have fallen permanently out of favor. Yet perversely the bloodletting has apparently only endeared Hamas to the Palestinian public. Recent polling shows that in both Gaza and the West Bank Hamas enjoys unprecedented levels of approval, with 74 percent expressing a desire to see Hamas’s terror tactics extended to the West Bank. Unlike Fatah, Hamas is seen as engaging in real “resistance.” And because both the Obama administration and the Europeans put such considerable pressure on Israel to reward Hamas’s terror war by granting far-reaching concessions, the message was received loud and clear on the Palestinian street: terrorism gets things done.
Abbas is desperate to be seen to be regaining the initiative. Yet given his past record, it would be mistaken to imagine that he has suddenly become serious about ending the conflict with Israel. Abbas has had multiple opportunities to achieve Palestinian statehood but has shirked the responsibility every time, knowing full well that an Israeli withdrawal would mean his inevitable overthrow by Hamas. Rather, as becomes apparent when one looks more closely at what is being put forward by Abbas, the focus is less on achieving peace and more on establishing a series of penalties against Israel for when the talks fail to bear fruit, as Abbas knows will be the case. This isn’t about reconciliation, this is about demonstrating to the Palestinian public that diplomacy is still an effective way of waging warfare by other means.
From what we know about the plan–from Abbas’s own words to Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog and from what has been leaked by former PA minister Mahmoud al-Habash–the plan is booby-trapped against Israel at every turn. The plan allows for negotiations to take place for a maximum of nine months, with that period being broken down into a timetable for reaching agreement on the key issues of Abbas’s choosing, with borders clearly featuring as his highest priority. If at any point this process doesn’t go according to plan and Abbas’s timetable isn’t kept to then Abbas is threatening to drag Israel before the International Criminal Court, to end cooperation on security in the West Bank and to resume efforts to achieve statehood via the UN.
There were many reasons to suspect that the last round of U.S. sponsored negotiations were unfavorable to the Israeli position, but even that playing field wasn’t uneven enough for Abbas. The only negotiations Abbas is interested in are ones that are fixed in his favor–fixed to ensure he gets what he wants, and more importantly, fixed to punish Israel if he doesn’t. For the moment even John Kerry appears nervous about backing so outrageous a proposal as this one. But with Abbas expected to announce his initiative later this month at the UN General Assembly meeting, we’ll see if the administration’s opposition holds out.