In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column â€œAccording to Reports,â€ Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, looks at how media focus on settlements is obscuring the real obstacle to peace – a lack of will by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement on Nov. 5 that he planned to resign his post and wouldn’t stand for re-election next January received heavy media coverage. Â Much of it followed a standard refrain: In the absence of Abbas, the strong Palestinian proponent of a two-state solution, the peace process has been dealt a severe, possibly an irreversible, blow.
The Nov. 5 Economist (“Is Israel too strong for Obama?”) argued that U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent call for Israeli “restraint” on settlement activity in place of his previous call for a total halt boxed Abbas into a corner with his own people. Â After all, Abbas had made this halt a precondition for the resumption of negotiations with Israel, even though no such precondition had existed in prior Palestinian-Israeli talks, including the 2008 Annapolis talks between Abbas and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.
As the Economist put it: “Mr Abbas, it seems, has been forced to acknowledge that his authority – and his ability to grapple with the Israelis in negotiations if they had resumed – has been eviscerated.”
The underlying assumption of this and similar analyses is that were it not for Israeli settlement activity (even “restrained” activity), Abbas would have been able to keep his head high and return to the negotiating table in pursuit of a genuine two-state deal.
The problem with this picture, however, is that it’s based on a mythology about Abbas’ own commitment and record.
A correction to this picture came not long ago from an unlikely source – from Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, who rose to prominence several years back while defending Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, against the charge that at the Camp David/Taba talks (2000-2001), he refused to accept a U.S.-backed Israeli offer for a viable Palestinian state. Yet in “Obama and the Middle East” (New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009), Malley and Agha reflected on the Annapolis conference and acknowledged that “[a]fter months of talks [with Olmert], Abbas declined a far more concessive Israeli proposalâ€”on the size of the territory for Palestinians, for exampleâ€”than the one Yasser Arafat turned down eight years ago and for which the then Palestinian leader was excoriated as an implacable enemy of peace. There is little reason to believe that more tweaking of the accord would have made a difference.â€
As with Arafat at Camp David, so with Abbas during the Annapolis talks: Israeli settlements (however complicating a factor one wishes to argue they are) did not cause the talks to fail. Â In fact they were – and remain – a resolvable issue. Â In both instances, the talks failed because Arafat and the more “moderate” Abbas could not bring themselves to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
The Economist itself apparently has forgotten what it recognized merely 15 months ago when it wrote: “Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, infuriated Bill Clinton (then Americaâ€™s president) and Israeli negotiators by repeatedly denying there ever was a Jewish temple on the [Temple Mount] and rejecting proposals to share sovereignty over it.”
According to several Israeli analysts, Abbas’ attitude about the Jews’ religious and historical attachment to Jerusalem is not much different from what Arafat’s was.
Furthermore, Abbas’ insistence on the “right of return” of Palestinians to present-day Israel makes the very notion of a “two-state” solution hollow. Â A genuine two-state settlement means two states for two people – a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people and a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Â Once again, the Economist should recall what it noted in its April 3, 2008 issue: â€œIt is ironic that the fundamental disagreement between Jews and Palestinians today is not about whether there should be a Palestinian state; most Israeli Jews accepted that long ago. It is about whether there should be a Jewish one.â€
Journalists who focus only on Israeli settlements as an “obstacle” to peace but who fail or refuse to deal with, among other things, the far deeper issue of the Palestinian rejection of Â the Jews’ right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland will never understand what a resolution of the conflict entails.