Abbas’ vision for peace is dead in its tracks

First published by the Middle East Eye on 27/2/2018

The Palestinian president has called for an international conference by mid-2018 to recognise Palestine as a state, but prospects are bleak amid US bias towards Israel

At a recent UN Security Council meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was set to deliver what was billed by his aides as an important speech outlining his peace plan after a tumultuous end to 2017, when US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and triggered the move of the US embassy there.

Before his speech, Abbas tested the readiness of a number of stakeholders in the peace process to see if they would take a more prominent role. He met with the EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others, calling for a broader group to oversee international negotiations and ensure the recognition of a Palestinian state.

While both Mogherini and Putin rejected Trump’s Jerusalem move, neither indicated a willingness to see the US sidelined in any future peace initiative.

Criticism from ambassadors

In his speech, Abbas relayed his vision for the future and asked to whom the Palestinians could turn to realise their rights if the UN Security Council fails them. “This Security Council is the highest entity to which the peoples of the world seek sanctuary and protection; after this council, we rest our issue to the Almighty. For, if justice for our people cannot be attained here, then to where should we go?” he asked.

Abbas called for several things, including an international peace conference by mid-2018 that would recognise Palestine as a state; the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative; and the refraining of all parties from taking any unilateral actions during the negotiation process.

The agreed package would need to be endorsed by the Security Council.

The Israeli and US ambassadors subsequently ridiculed Abbas, who left the stage immediately after his speech, for running away from hard “truths”. Israeli ambassador Danny Danon said he had “expected Mr Abbas to stay for a dialogue, but once again he has run away instead of listening to what we have to say”, and accused him of being “no longer part of the solution. You are the problem.”

US ambassador Nikki Haley was also heavily critical, noting: “There is the path of absolutist demands, hateful rhetoric, and incitement to violence. That path has led, and will continue to lead, to nothing but hardship for the Palestinian people. Or there is the path of negotiation and compromise.”

‘Deal of the century’

If the Palestinian president expected to leave the stage to rapturous applause from the Security Council, he was badly disappointed. If this is the body that he expects to endorse his plan, convene an international conference this summer and recognise Palestine as a state, then he might as well have saved himself the journey.

The call by Abbas for an international conference appears dead in its tracks when one considers the last attempt by France, a permanent member of the Security Council, to hold one in far more favourable political conditions, in the dying days of the Obama administration.

The conference was attended by some 70 countries, excluding Israel and the Palestinians, with Britain sending a low-level official instead of its foreign secretary. Even well-informed followers of the conflict would struggle to recall what the Paris conference achieved; its call for the status of Jerusalem not to be changed unilaterally was disregarded by Trump almost exactly a year later.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, awaits Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the Security Council on February 20, 2018, as US presidential adviser Jared Kushner looks on (AFP)

The US administration is continuing to develop its “deal of the century”, with Haley recently cautioning that neither Israel nor the Palestinians would “love” it. Palestinians will have to reject the deal if, as leaks have suggested, the core issues of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees are taken off the table.

Israel, meanwhile, will have a great hand in influencing the deal, but it will still claim that it falls short of meeting its security needs – but that it can work with Trump’s administration to improve it. The more they “improve” it, the less favourable it will be to Palestinians, who will be castigated for again “disrespecting” the administration.

Cards stacked against Palestinians

How could an international conference be held under this kind of near-certain outcome, and why did Abbas misguidedly specify an almost impossible date for the process, knowing the cards are stacked against him?

The only factor that could reshuffle the cards would be a change in the Israeli prime ministership. While the prospects of Benjamin Netanyahu staying in power change from day to day, his absence could change the game – but with a weak left and an emboldened Israeli right, it is unlikely that either a left-led coalition or a pragmatic, right-leaning leader would come through.

You need only list the names of the potential prime ministers to conclude that a change in leadership would merely diminish peace prospects further: Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Kahlon, Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay. None have a desire to see an end to the settlement enterprise or the illegal occupation of Jerusalem, or to see the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Gabbay, who leads the Labor party, opposes the removal of even the most isolated outposts, and he told a meeting of party activists that “the Arabs have to be afraid of us. They fire one missile – you fire 20. That’s all they understand in the Middle East.”

Climate of hatred

This is hardly a group of individuals that really want to see a just peace. And why would they not take advantage of a US administration that is solidly behind Israel’s expansionist goals?

The pro-Israel lobby in the US worked for decades to see an American administration that would not only acquiesce to Israeli demands, whatever they happen to be, but even use talking points produced by the Israeli foreign affairs ministry to make the case.

Among others, these talking points include comments about how “the settlements are not an obstacle to peace”, references to “realities on the ground” and “Israel’s security needs”, and remarks about how Israel is “unfairly treated” and picked on disproportionately considering everything else that is happening in the Middle East.

Trump’s disruption through his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could have produced a climate much more favourable to peace – that is, if he had recognised West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and conditioned the building of two embassies on the conclusion of peace talks based on international law, within, say, two years.

Instead, Trump clearly staked out his side, fuelling a climate of hatred and fear. Hope in the Holy Land has been in short supply in the past few decades, and Trump has turned the tap off entirely.

Unless he finds the courage and wisdom to retract his decision, the hope tap will remain off, and no amount of pleading by Abbas or a change in Israel’s leadership will be able to force it back on. This is bad for both Israelis and Palestinians.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as a commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 20, 2018 (AFP)

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