Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is in one of the toughest positions I’ve ever seen for a leader of a somewhat-recognized-but-not-really state. He’s physically hemmed in on all sides by Israel; his rival for control over Palestinian politics (Hamas) is growing stronger than him all the time; and he seems genuinely uncertain, or scared, about his options.
And yet with one visit to Turkey he made two moves that deserve not only commendation for their boldness, but also an immediate and positive response by Israel.
Israel has long demanded that Abbas separate himself from Hamas, in order to be recognized as a true moderate. During his visit to Turkey, Abbas did just that: he publicly disagreed with a very popular Hamas over the right of Israel to exist, which in turn underlines his support for two states.
And the location of the comments could not be more symbolic. Abbas took on his rival in the presence of the Turks, who have been growing closer to Hamas at the expense of ties with the PA, and who have been at fierce odds with Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. It was a mild rebuke to Ankara at the same time.
The claim, then, that there is no Palestinian partner for peace is at best an incomplete one.
Unfortunately, in his characteristic way, Abbas undermined his own effort at the very same time. During the same visit that he chided Hamas, he also hinted—at a press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gül—that if Israel continued with its settlement project, particularly in the explosive E1 area, he might go to the International Criminal Court.
On the one hand, you can understand Abbas’s frustration. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has continued expanding settlements throughout the West Bank and around East Jerusalem—a unilateral action if ever there was one. Yet after Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of unilateral action and, flying into a rage, immediately began building more settlements.
At the UN, Abbas gave what can only be described as a vicious speech accusing Israel of every possible wrong and absolving Palestinians of their own responsibilities and agency. And one might argue that Abbas’s effort to form a unity government with Hamas is a sign of his secret tendencies toward extremism.
But on the other hand, one can see that Abbas has little choice but to take such a tough rhetorical stance. Israel has all but ignored him, preferring to lend credibility to Hamas and its violent ways instead of the PA’s diplomacy. And Israeli leaders themselves engage in harsh comments about and display a lack of sensitivity toward Palestinians. In a conflict increasingly incorporating collective memory, identity, and claims to victimhood, perhaps this is to be expected.
In the same hateful UN speech, Abbas explicitly recognized the 1967 Green Line as the border of the Palestinian state. Israel and Palestine can disagree over the exact route of the border, but that’s what negotiations are for. The focus on the Green Line is the very essence of the two state solution that Israel, including Netanyahu, has accepted.
And Abbas might contend that his calls for unity with Hamas are no different from the center-right Likud allying with far-right parties in an Israeli coalition. (I’m not convinced it’s the same, but the argument is there to be made.)
Abbas is trying, in his way. Given his circumstances, and despite his fumbling, this deserves Israel reciprocation, not condemnation. He’s clumsy, and he’s certainly made mistakes. But if leaders never negotiated with others who’d made blunders, we’d never get international agreements.