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The Deceitful Diplomatic History of Abbas’ Advisor

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a former Palestinian negotiator and current advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, presented a deceitful account of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy over the course of the Obama administration in a New York Times op-ed published on Wednesday.

The tone of the op-ed, which calls on the United States to support the French initiative “for a multilateral framework for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” is both demanding and disrespectful towards President Barack Obama. Instead of advocating for bilateral negotiations as a means of achieving peace, in accordance with the Oslo Accords, Shtayyeh demanded “international engagement” — a code for externally imposed terms on Israel. “Anything short of that will be yet another failure,” Shtayyeh claimed.

Shtayyeh failed to honestly explain why Obama’s efforts to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians have not succeeded until now. A closer look shows that, at the two points when the Obama administration was most engaged in the issue, it was the Palestinians, led by Shtayyeh’s boss, who torpedoed the efforts.

“Many promises were made,” Shtayyeh wrote, “including a partial freeze of settlements, a release of some political prisoners, and discussions on the borders of a future Palestinian state. None of these was fulfilled.” This is a flat out lie.

In late 2009, Obama convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a ten-month moratorium on construction in Israeli communities in the West Bank, which was intended to give Abbas space to negotiate. The freeze began in December 2009 and was to last until late September 2010. Given the claims of urgency to create a Palestinian state, one would have expected Abbas to engage with Israel right away. But he didn’t. The talks between Israel and the Palestinians didn’t begin until Abbas deigned to sit down with Israel in early September, less than four weeks before the settlement freeze was to expire. He then made it clear that talks would not continue unless the freeze was extended. That entire ten-month stretch led to precisely two meetings between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed in 2012 that the Palestinians’ intransigence during the construction freeze was a missed opportunity for peace:

I stood on a stage with [Netanyahu] … and I said it was unprecedented for any Israeli prime minister to have done that. I got so criticized. I got criticized from the right, the left, the center, Israeli, Jewish, Arab, Christian, you name it. Everybody criticized me. But the fact was it was a 10-month settlement freeze. And he was good to his word. And we couldn’t get the Palestinians into the conversation until the tenth month. … In the last 20 years, I’ve seen Israeli leaders make an honest, good-faith effort and not be reciprocated in the way that was needed.

In April 2011, when Newsweek reported on the strained relationship between Abbas and Obama, the Palestinian president didn’t express regret over waiting until 90 percent of the construction freeze had passed. Instead, he blamed Obama. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas told the paper. “I said O.K., I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”

Shtayyeh’s recounting of a later White House effort to revitalize talks between Israel and the Palestinians further demonstrates his mendacity:

The last round of peace talks, facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and 2014, proved to be a total failure. Though the president supported the start of negotiations, even he was not hopeful. He instructed Mr. Kerry to lower his expectations from Day 1, indicating that the administration was not putting its political weight behind the secretary of state. Though Mr. Kerry talked with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, dozens of times, he was unable to deliver the other key player: the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Contrary to Shtayyeh’s claim, during the Kerry-sponsored talks, Israel released several groups of Palestinian terrorists from prison. Many of the freed prisoners were convicted murderers who were treated as heroes by Abbas when they arrived in Ramallah.

In fact, Netanyahu reluctantly accepted a framework agreement issued by the U.S., while Abbas conversely rejected it. David Hazony, editor of The Tower, described the Palestinian president’s actions at the time:

In the days following PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ stunning declaration that he would turn to the UN, violating the premise of peace talks by unilaterally signing 15 treaties normally reserved for states (and most of which his Palestinian Authority is flagrantly violating), it has emerged just how overarching his rejectionist approach was pretty much from the get-go. The details suggest a premeditated effort to participate in talks without the intention of compromising on any issue of significance to the U.S.–and thereby to reap the benefits of negotiating without allowing any deal to emerge.

In December 2014, former Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni confirmed that it was Abbas who had stymied the U.S. efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Livni told New York Times columnist Roger Cohen that it was Abbas who refused to accept the American framework.

Shtayyeh’s op-ed reflects a mindset widespread among Palestinian leaders, who instead of pursuing a compromise through bilateral negotiations, simply try to get others to impose favorable terms on Israel.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post, described this very attitude in 2009. After meeting with Abbas in May, and describing his rejection of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace proposal, Diehl observed that the Palestinian leader was content to simply wait out Netanyahu:

Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze — if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. “It will take a couple of years,” one official breezily predicted. Abbas rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession — such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees.

Instead, he says, he will remain passive. “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life.”

Shtayyeh, like his boss, refuses to make the tough decisions necessary for peace. Whether or not he even believes in the concept — having posted a picture online that erased Israel and replace it with a single word “Palestine” in 2013 — is itself an open question.

[Photo: Sinn Féin / Flickr ]