The Palestinian Endgame?

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Ben Cohen and Benjamin Kerstein ~

From the Blog

The Palestinian Authority President generated much heat and little light with his recent appearance at the UN General Assembly. Hence, the question remains: What exactly is it that Mahmoud Abbas wants? And is he exposing the Palestinians to the Middle East’s darkest forces in the process?

For more than forty years, no people has enjoyed the status the Palestinians have at the United Nations. While the causes of dozens of stateless peoples and persecuted minorities have been ignored, rationalized, and even silenced by the global body, the Palestinians have enjoyed precisely the opposite: They have their own UN agency, UNRWA, dedicated to the 1948 refugees and their far more numerous descendants. They have a Division for Palestinian Rights that organizes conferences and propaganda events around the world. They benefit from a Human Rights Council that issues endless condemnations of Israel. And they all but own a General Assembly that includes several states, most obviously Iran, that would be happy to see Israel permanently banished from the community of nations.

“Palestine” is not yet a full UN member state. Currently, it is known as a “non-member observer state.” But Palestinian leaders are treated as heads of state at the annual UN General Assembly in New York. That privilege was famously extended to the late Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in November 1974, when he approached the rostrum with an empty holster at his side for dramatic effect. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun,” he told the delegates at the end of his speech. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

Since then, Palestinian bigwigs have been featured at the General Assembly and other notable UN events with clockwork regularity. Each time, they claim to bear an olive branch. And each time, they weave a web of deceit in hopes that the world will point a gun at Israel’s head.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the General Assembly on September 30, 2015 was entirely in keeping with this tradition.

One day prior to the speech, Abbas penned an article for The Huffington Post in which the drab, portly bureaucrat sought to assume the voice of a fierce guerilla leader. “In 1948, we were cast out of our places of birth and those of our ancestors; our homes and heritage were destroyed,” he thundered, as he slandered the birth of the Jewish state as a colonial exercise in ethnic cleansing.

Abbas followed up on this hateful rhetoric when the Palestinian national flag was raised outside the UN’s headquarters for the first time. He announced that he would no longer participate in bilateral negotiations with Israel, which he called an “occupying power” that violates “every fundamental human right of the Palestinian people.”

Though delivered in a tone that could cure insomnia, Abbas’ speech was a masterpiece of deceit and defamation. Among the more egregious lies and distortions:

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us … and as long as Israel refuses to cease settlement activities and to release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners in accordance with our agreements, they leave us no choice but to insist that we will not remain the only ones committed to the implementation of these agreements, while Israel continuously violates them.”

Israel and the Palestinians never agreed to a settlement freeze in any form. The “fourth group” of Palestinian prisoners was not released because Abbas chose, as The New Republic put it, to “blow up” the peace talks then underway. He did so by unilaterally joining a host of international organizations without prior consultation.

This was a direct violation of the Oslo Accords, which explicitly state that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank … pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” It was, in other words, Abbas who violated previous agreements, not Israel.

Israel has made “repeated, systematic incursions upon al-Aqsa mosque, aimed at imposing a new reality.”

Israel has not in any way changed or sought to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, known as the Har Ha-Bayit to Jews and the Haram Ash-Sharif to Muslims. Speaking to the UN General Assembly the day after Abbas’ speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this clear. “President Abbas, stop spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount,” he said. “Israel is fully committed to maintaining the status quo there. What President Abbas should be speaking out against are the actions of militant Islamists who are smuggling explosives into the al-Aqsa Mosque and trying to prevent Jewish and Christian visitors from entering the site.”

Indeed, all of the recent violence at the site was instigated by Palestinians, many of whom routinely harass non-Muslim visitors to the Mount and attack Israeli security forces.

“We do not respond to the Israeli occupation’s hatred and brutality with the same. Instead, we are working on spreading the culture of peace and coexistence between our people and in our region.”

The modern Palestinian national movement, from its inception, was a terrorist movement that aimed to extinguish Israel as a sovereign Jewish state through “hatred and brutality.” It claimed thousands of Israeli and non-Israeli lives in shootings, suicide bombings, aircraft hijackings, and innumerable other war crimes and acts of inhuman violence. Though Abbas says he has rejected the use of violence, he frequently incites against Israel and the Jewish people, while attacks carried out by Fatah-affiliated terrorist factions include the cold-blooded murder, on October 1, of a young couple in front of their four young children while they were driving in the West Bank.  Many other factions of the Palestinian national movement remain equally committed to violence, and the Islamist Hamas movement—which came to power in Gaza in 2007—remains openly genocidal in its stance toward the Jewish state.

“The Israeli Government insists on continuing its destruction of the two-state solution and on entrenchment of two regimes on the ground: an apartheid regime that is currently imposed on the territory of the State of Palestine.”

Two Israeli Prime Ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinians peace deals that would have resulted in a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. They were both rejected, first by Yasser Arafat, and then by Abbas. There is no “apartheid regime” imposed on a “State of Palestine.” First, because no state of Palestine yet exists. Second, because South African apartheid was a hierarchical system of government based on skin color alone. Nothing of the kind has been imposed on the West Bank.

“How does a nation that claims to be a bastion of democracy accept the existence of ‘price tag’ gangs?”

Israel does not “accept” anything of the kind. The “price tag” gangs composed of Jewish fanatics have been correctly labeled as terrorists by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Israelis from across the political spectrum. Recently, security forces have been given expanded powers to combat suspected price-taggers, including lengthy administrative detention, which is also used against Arab terrorists.

“Is it not time for the racist annexation wall to be dismantled?”

There is no “annexation wall.” Abbas is referring to the security barrier built on the border between the West Bank and Israel proper. It was erected in order to stop waves of suicide bombers from committing terrorist atrocities motivated by their bitter racism toward Jews. The wall is widely seen as an extremely successful method of fighting terrorism, and has saved thousands of lives.

“Is it not time to end the racist, terrorist, colonial settlement of our land, which is destroying the two-state solution?”

Quite often, what people hate the most is what they see in themselves.

“Racist”: Mahmoud Abbas is a lifelong member of Fatah, the largest party in the PLO. The PLO’s charter is openly racist, as it denies the existence of the Jewish people and their national rights, and originally called for the ethnic cleansing of all Jews who immigrated to Israel after the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

“Terrorist”: The PLO was also, for many years, one of the foremost terrorist organizations in the world. As noted above, it was involved in numerous war crimes and atrocities. After supposedly renouncing violence in the 1990s, the PLO returned to terror in 2000, launching a campaign of mass murder against Israel that often targeted women, children, and the elderly.

“Colonial”: This is perhaps the most ironic. Abbas is an Arab nationalist, but Arabs are not indigenous to the land of Israel. They came to the region as imperial conquerors and stayed under the auspices of an Islamic empire. That is, they were colonialists who succeeded in replacing the native population. None of this negates their rights as the current residents of the West Bank, but it does put the lie to Abbas’ ahistorical and defamatory rhetoric.

All of these lies were told for a reason: They were essential to Abbas’ ultimate conclusion. To show the world just how bad Israel supposedly is, Abbas seemed to be saying, it was in the Palestinian interest to force Israel to “fully assume all its responsibilities as an occupying power.” The only way he could justify such a blatant violation of previous agreements and, indeed, the very idea of peace itself, was to make Israel look as monstrous as possible.

But the truth is, this “bombshell,” much-hyped before the speech, is not very convincing. An Associated Press analysis from Ramallah warned before the speech that Abbas would come across as desperate. It added that severing ties with Israel “could cost him vital foreign aid, trigger chaos, and end his 10-year rule.” As Abbas walked away from the rostrum, it seemed that all he’d achieved was the raising of the Palestinian flag on Manhattan’s First Avenue.

So, what is Abbas’s endgame? Does he even have one?

It might be to set the Palestinians on a long march through the world’s various global institutions. Trusting to the international establishment’s fetishization of the Palestinian cause, the PA can join international organizations and treaties, and press for war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. As a result, Abbas may believe, Israel will be compelled to concede a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. This would cancel out the need to actually negotiate and, inevitably, make unpalatable concessions.

The first problem with this is the lack of a timeframe. Abbas threatened to abrogate previous agreements with Israel, but gave no indication of when he might do so. This could seriously impede Palestinian efforts to internationalize the conflict. Launching a case at the ICC, for example, is a cumbersome procedure that could easily backfire on the Palestinians. It would be a huge investment of political resources that might have no tangible outcome. Abbas may believe that he has an ally in U.S. President Barack Obama, who, it has just been reported, declined appeals from his own Senate minority leader to veto any UN resolution establishing a Palestinian state. But Obama’s successor is likely to be more skeptical and even openly opposed to Abbas’ unilateralist strategy. Finally, even if Abbas were to give an ultimatum on the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel will not move one iota on this front while Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain a threat. In his own speech to the UN, Netanyahu made it quite clear that the Iran issue remains his number one priority. This is not likely to change anytime soon.

Moreover, the indications are that Abbas will not give any such ultimatum. A few hours after his UN speech, one of his advisors, Mahmoud Habbash, said that the PA president’s threat to abandon signed agreements with Israel “does not mean that he will carry it out tomorrow.” Habbash clarified this further, saying, “Abbas did not declare the abrogation of any agreement. But he told the world that as of now that Palestinian commitment to the agreements is linked to the extent of Israel’s commitment.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waits to speak at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 30, 2015. Photo: Amir Levy / Flash90

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waits to speak at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 30, 2015. Photo: Amir Levy / Flash90

And as The New York Times editorial board noted, “Abbas did not specify what tangible actions might follow his rejection of Oslo, and it would be foolhardy for him to cut the existing security, economic and civil cooperation with Israel, or to incite the Palestinians to more violence.”

All of this could mean one of two things: Abbas may continue at the helm of a stuttering PA, complaining about Israeli intransigence all the time. Or he will start to step back from politics, potentially leaving behind a power vacuum. Dangerous anywhere, such a vacuum is particularly destabilizing in the Middle East, as the past four years have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The extent of that vacuum will be determined through political infighting among the Palestinians themselves. And this brings us to another issue elided by Abbas’ UN speech: The simple fact that he is widely distrusted, and in some cases openly loathed, by his own people.

A recent analysis by Grant Rumley of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies offered a grim picture of internal PA politics:

The aging Palestinian leader is six years past his term limit, without a clear successor or national strategy. His decade-long consolidation of control over the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and his party, Fatah, has met staunch resistance in recent months. … Chief among Abbas’s multi-front war is the feud between his party, Fatah, and its rivals in Gaza, Hamas. The armed conflict that started when both sides fought a civil war over the 2006 parliamentary elections has morphed into a low-intensity struggle masquerading under perennial reconciliation talks.

Hamas, Rumley asserted, is gambling that it can outlast the Abbas era, the final phase of which may have already begun. In August, Abbas resigned from the Executive Committee of the PLO in a move slammed as “theatrics” by Professor Samir Awad, a political analyst at Birzeit University. The move appears to have been designed to shore up Abbas’ own loyalists in advance of his UN appearance.

There’s a reason for this: Abbas is old. His lack of popularity is undermining his authority. Potential successors are already lining up. But most, like Abbas, command little support on the Palestinian “street,” exacerbating the growing power vacuum. Those who are popular show little interest in rejecting violence, let alone making peace. In the October 3 edition of the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot, columnist Nahum Barnea went down the list.

At the top are the “national heroes”: Muhammad Deif and Marwan Barghouti. Both are mass murderers. Deif is Hamas’ chief terrorist. He is adored on the street because he has “survived five Israeli assassination attempts” in which he lost an eye, an arm, and a leg, but “nonetheless continued to direct Hamas’ military arm in Gaza.” Barghouti, former chief of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, was one of the architects of the Second Intifada. He is now languishing in an Israeli jail after receiving a life sentence for orchestrating several deadly terror attacks.

According to Barnea, few of the other candidates have much of a chance. Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, was once viewed as the “natural heir.” But he is now “critically ill with cancer.” Officials like Jibril Rajoub, Saeb Erekat, and Rami Hamdallah are compromised, uninterested, or already trying to leave politics. Most of all, Abbas wants to avoid being replaced by Muhammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former strongman in Gaza who now calls for the ouster of the very man he once served.

Abbas may continue at the helm of a stuttering PA, complaining about Israeli intransigence all the time. Or he will start to step back from politics, potentially leaving behind a power vacuum.

Whether Abbas can survive these conflicts, let alone bequeath a durable political legacy, is highly debatable. All of this indicates that Abbas’ successor is likely to be either a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism. This does not bode well for the future.

Then there are external predators, such as Iran and the various Islamist factions battling in Syria and Iraq. ISIS and Al Qaeda are already present in Gaza and the West Bank, and there is little confidence that the PA’s security apparatus can withstand their provocations over the long-term. Indeed, Barnea notes that 14 percent of Gazans now support ISIS.

Meanwhile, the Iranians, for whom Abbas has long been an irrelevance, have loudly proclaimed that they are the genuine leaders of the Palestinian liberation struggle, which they regard as synonymous with the general Islamist struggle for the elimination of Israel. As a result, Tehran has boosted support for both Hamas and Hezbollah in the wake of the nuclear deal. A renewed war on Israel’s northern or southern fronts—or both—would again leave Abbas a bystander, and could lead to his final disappearance from Palestinian politics.

It is often said that Palestinian political strategy is habitually self-defeating. But Abbas’ sullen rejection of cooperation with Israel could result in irrevocable damage. The surest path to a Palestinian state is through negotiations with Israel. By deliberately weakening the PA in a short-sighted maneuver, Abbas is opening the gates for the conquest of Palestinian politics by foreign forces that believe in such high ideals as the subjugation of minorities and the pursuit of jihad as a foreign policy. A Palestinian state living peacefully alongside the State of Israel, however, is not among them.

Banner Photo: Photo: Mark Langfan / YouTube