Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: what are the possibilities?

Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: what are the possibilities?

By Lawrence Davidson

26 August 2010

Lawrence Davidson explains why the US-sponsored direct talks between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, due to start on 2 September, are most unlikely to result in anything that is in the interest of the Palestinian people.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced that direct “negotiations” between Binyamon Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will begin on 2 September 2010.

It is reported that Abbas agreed to these talks only after heavy pressure from both the United States and the European Union. As part of the pressure President Barack Obama is said to have told Abbas in June that the US could do more to help the Palestinians if direct negotiations were ongoing. George Mitchell, the United States special Middle East envoy, vowed that Washington would be an “active and sustained partner” and when necessary would offer “bridging proposals” to move the negotiations along. Abbas, who is the head of Fatah, has agreed to enter the negotiations without preconditions. The only proviso he has put forth is that if Israel suspends its “settlement freeze” he will stop participating in the talks. We shall see.

These sort of diplomatic exercises have happened before. To take just one example, in 2000 Yasser Arafat was pressured by President Bill Clinton to attend Camp David II. Arafat, who was a more skilful leader than Abbas, knew that there had not been a proper groundwork laid for a successful summit between himself and then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. But the Americans got him to the table by promising to be “active” and “impartial” in the process and also not to lay blame on any one party if the talks failed. Barak showed up with a list of “red-line” non-negotiable items and demands that foredoomed the meeting. Clinton was active all right, but most of his activity was directed at twisting Arafat’s arm to give in to the Israelis. When, despite a number of compromises on the part of the Palestinians, the talks failed, Clinton betrayed his promise to Arafat and publicly blamed him for the failure.

“Even though Abbas’s status as the leader of the Palestinians is open to question, Obama will try to do to him what Clinton was not able to do to Arafat, that is brow-beat Abbas into signing an agreement with the Israelis.”

Abbas is in an even weaker position than Arafat was. At least Arafat was a respected statesman and the elected leader of the Palestinian people. Abbas is not generally supported by his people as witnessed by the fact that his Fatah party was defeated in free and fair elections by Hamas in January 2006. Despite the fact that Obama and the Europeans act like Abbas is the head of a Palestine government, he represents almost no one but a largely corrupt cabal armed and financed by the Americans and the European Union – which might have a lot to do with their ability to get him to the negotiating table.

Even though Abbas’s status as the leader of the Palestinians is open to question, Obama will try to do to him what Clinton was not able to do to Arafat, that is brow-beat Abbas into signing an agreement with the Israelis. Assuming that this is accomplished, the question is how would Abbas implement the agreement? There is a small middle class element of Palestinians on the West Bank who are understandably exhausted and fed up with the situation they find themselves in. If guaranteed some peace and quiet and the ability to do business, they may go along with the apartheid deal that Netanyahu has in mind. The Palestinian government bureaucrats and militia mercenaries (trained and armed by the Americans) are financially dependent on the Fatah regime, and they too might go along as well. But the bulk of West Bank Palestinians – shop keepers, day labourers, agriculturists, etc. – would probably take to the streets in protest. Would Abbas use his party militia to violently suppress the opposition’s outrage? And, would the militia soldiers fire on the crowds if ordered to shoot? Could very well be. The Israelis would, of course, offer to use their American Apache helicopters as air support for Abbas. Yasser Arafat must truly be turning over in his grave at the possibilities.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has proclaimed that an agreement with the Palestinians is “doable”. But that just means he sees Abbas as weak and vulnerable and therefore more easily cheated out of a Palestinian homeland than any prior Palestinian leader. Netanyahu holds all the cards. The Palestinians cannot hurt him, the Americans will not hurt him, and so he is free to play to the only force that may indeed hurt him – the right wing parties that hold his government coalition together. He will settle only for a deal he can sell to them. And, if Abbas does balk, Netanyahu can always say he tried and, once again, it is all the fault of the Palestinians. At that point he would probably haul out the old Israeli saying that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

And what does President Obama get out of this exercise? Well, he is able to say that he too is trying really hard to settle this seemingly endless conflict. He promised to try to do so, and here he is keeping his promise. That should carry him through the November elections. Further down the line, however, he has made the political mistake of promising to present his own peace plan if, after one year of negotiating, the Israelis and Palestinians have not made serious progress. If things actually work out this way, Obama might find himself, by virtue of his peace plan, in the midst of political turmoil just as he prepares for re-election. After all, how does the president implement any prospective plan? By waving a magic wand and making all the political obstacles presented by the Zionist lobby go away? Or does he just put it on the table and then run away from it?

Just to vary the perspective, here is a possibly relevant comparative case. At the beginning of 1918 Leon Trotsky, People’s Commissar for Foreign Policy in the new revolutionary Soviet government, sat in the city of Brest-Litovsk (located today in Belarus) trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the aggressive representatives of imperial Germany. World War I was still raging and the German armies had been consistently victorious on the eastern front. As a result, the Russian army was in a state of collapse. For their part, the Bolsheviks were desperate to end the war so that they could concentrate on consolidating power in a struggle against competing Russian forces. In other words, at Brest-Litovsk the Germans held all the cards. So they demanded that Trotsky stop lecturing them on the dialectical nature of class conflict and accept terms that essentially turned most of western Russia into a satellite of the German empire. Trotsky was appalled. But the pan-European revolution that was suppose to tip the balance of power in favour of communism had not materialized, and Vladimir Lenin decided that to not accept peace on German terms would mean the eventual collapse of the young Soviet government in Russia. Lenin forced the Bolshevik Central Committee to accept the draconian treaty terms laid down by the Germans. The catch in all of this is that Germany went on to lose the war on the western front which meant that the balance of power in the east finally did shift in favour of the Soviet regime. The men in Moscow were very lucky.

“The Palestinian struggle is … a two front affair. There is Palestine proper and then a worldwide front where a movement of civil society seeks to isolate the Israeli government because of its barbarous behaviour and policies.”

Is there a lesson here for the Palestinians? The Palestinian struggle is also a two front affair. There is Palestine proper and then a worldwide front where a movement of civil society seeks to isolate the Israeli government because of its barbarous behaviour and policies. If the fate of South Africa is an applicable precedent, that front should gain strength and eventually raise the cost of occupation and apartheid in Israel to a point where the Israeli government seriously considers a change of policies. In the meantime, what should the West Bank Palestinians do? Should they make amends with Hamas and continue to resist as best they can for however long it takes to wear the Israelis down – assuming that can be done? Or should they cut their losses and sign a draconian treaty with the Israelis in the hope that, when and if, Tel Aviv loses the war on the worldwide front, the treaty terms can be favourably restructured? Of course, moving in that direction raises the question of whether such a deal might not take the wind out of the anti-Israel boycott movement, and thereby weaken the second front? Then there is the question: what does Abbas and his Fatah party followers really want? Do they want a just peace for the Palestinians, or like Lenin, do they want to consolidate their power even if it is in a diminished Palestine?

It is a complicated affair and there are no clear cut answers to any of these questions. My own feeling is that Abbas could not make a Brest-Litvosk style settlement stick even if he is inclined to sign such an agreement. Things have gone too far for the majority of Palestinians, both inside and outside of Palestine, to accept it. Abbas would become the Palestinian version of a Quisling and he would not die in bed. Whatever happens, those of us outside of Palestine must hunker down and push the worldwide front. That seems to be our only viable choice.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.