Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Failed Ending of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Posted in Uncategorized by Dan on August 8, 2009
Thanks to Mahmoud Abbas' change in behavior, President Obama's mission to bring peace is all but over

Thanks to Mahmoud Abbas' change in behavior, President Obama's mission to bring peace is all but over

On this day, August 4, 2009, I declare the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over.  The six months of mediation between Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, despite some warm dialogue exchanged between the two parties, has undergone an unfortunate transition into the history books.  Yet another American president, this time under the leadership and guidance of Barack Hussein Obama, has failed to deliver on promises of an historic peace agreement in the Middle East.  Repeated Israeli incursions into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are imminent, while the radical Hamas movement will continue to gain unprecedented victories in its armed-struggle against the Jewish state.  Depending on the perspective one has on the issue, you can chalk up a victory for both the hawkish supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the advocates of radical Islam.

What evidence supporters my bold conclusions?  How is today different from other instances of Israeli and Palestinian infighting?  Surprisingly, the answer lies not in the policies of the White House, nor the continued international defiance of Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, nor the expansion of Jewish settlements inside the West Bank.  Rather, the behavior of Mahmoud Abbas, the undisputed leader of the Fatah party, is solely responsible for the absolute destruction of peace in the Holy Land.  Based on today’s bleak circumstances, the one man that appeared genuine in forging a prospective peace deal with the Israeli “enemy” is caving in to the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism.

According to various sources both at home and abroad, President Mahmoud Abbas addressed his Fatah members in the party’s first congress is 20 years…drafting a new party platform dealing with issues ranging from economic policy to Palestinian statehood.  For many Middle Eastern analysts inside Washington, the Fatah convention was perceived as a ripe opportunity for Abbas to publicly shore up his western-credentials:  opposing Hamas’ campaign of terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians while bolstering his own strategy for direct negotiations.  In terms more indicative of the Obama administration, Mr. Abbas’ address may have been seen as a dramatic stepping-stone for their personal drive towards peace in the area…an issue that is increasingly being defined by experts as the most important mission for President Obama’s foreign-policy.

However positive and hopeful each of these assumptions are, Americans, Israelis and moderate Palestinians were all shocked and disgusted to hear harsh words emanating from such a soft-spoken man.  Rather than use his party’s first convention since the movement’s founding in a constructive manner…such as demonstrating to the international community Palestine’s unending commitment to diplomacy and negotiation, Mr. Abbas has decided to appease the demands of hard-line Palestinian voters.  The reformed draft, publicly endorsed by Mr. Abbas himself, states that “armed resistance” against Israel will forever remain an option in the Palestinian quest for an independent and sovereign state.  In the words of the Fatah chairman, “although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law.”  In what is seemingly a political ploy for the radicalized Palestinian vote, the former moderate is now stressing his support for attacks against Israeli operations if current negotiations fall flat on its face.

As if this rhetoric is not dangerous enough, the Palestinian President repeatedly invoked language that is all too characteristic of his Hamas rival.  “We will not stand helpless in the face of Israeli incursions,” Abbas declares…politically-correct jargon basically reiterating that the Palestinian people will meet violence with more violence.  Is this any different from the militants joining the ranks of the Hamas movement…an organization that refuses to recognize Israel’s very right to exist?  How can Abbas’ statements seriously be distinguished from Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’ political director who continues to threaten the Jewish state’s survival?  When the two-most dissimilar ideological factions inside Palestinian politics begins to mesh together on an issue as crucial as Israeli safety and security, the realistic possibilities for a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace accord become virtually nonexistent.

While it is easy to blame Mr. Abbas’ irrationality for Fatah’s backtracking on peaceful coexistence, this would not fully explain the rationale for his decision.  There are motives involved, inherently political, which are forcing Abbas to alter his previous statements of moderation and toleration.  With the Palestinian parliamentary elections approaching in 2010, it is quite obvious that the Fatah leader is desperately trying to garnish the support of the anti-Israeli electorate.  Recent polls only confirm this belief.  Thanks to the work of David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 52 percent of Palestinians polled support armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel.  This is not some statistic conducted exclusively in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave where Hamas possess a majority of its rank-and-file.  The poll is a direct result of the radicalization of Palestinian politics inside the West Bank…an area that is governed and protected by Abbas’ Fatah Party and his Palestinian Security Forces.  In the phrase of Mr. Schenker, “where have all the Palestinian moderates gone?”  The answer…perhaps there were no Palestinian moderates to begin with.

With over half of the Palestinian electorate advocating armed resistance against Israelis who have no control over their governments aggressive posturing, Mr. Abbas is sacrificing international peace for local politics.  With the Hamas movement already attracting a large constituency in the Gaza Strip, and with Hamas militants increasingly seeping into the West Bank to expand their operations, the members of Fatah are predicting that their days in power are numbered.  What better way to delay this downfall by catering to the desires of radical Palestine, and thus, the supporters of the Hamas challenger?  By publicly appeasing the views of the Palestinian electorate, namely by insisting that violence will be used in order to establish a permanent Palestinian state, Mahmoud Abbas is chipping away at Hamas’ base at a time when elections are less than a year away.

Not only will Mr. Abbas’ belligerent rhetoric result in an Israeli refusal to compromise on Jewish settlements in the West Bank…it may also provoke Netanyahu and his coalition into adopting an equally aggressive ideology.  To the dismay of the peaceniks, Fatah’s political trick is undermining, if not destroying, the confidence necessary for an historic end to hostilities.  An end to Israeli-Palestinian peace indeed.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Mohammad Assadi of Reuters and David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy contributed to this blog.

Assadi’s article can be accessed at:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/04/AR2009080400680.html?wprss=rss_world/wires

Schenker’s article can be accessed at:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/04/where_have_all_the_palestinian_moderates_gone

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